Category Archives: Rights Reversion

My Publisher Agreed to Revert Rights: Now What?

Posted July 23, 2019
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

Since we first published our guide to Understanding Rights Reversion in 2015, our rights reversion resources page has been a one-stop shop for authors seeking the information they need to get back the rights in their works.

Rights Reversion CoverFor those who are new to the concept of rights reversion, the guide is a good place to start. It explains what rights reversion is, how it benefits authors and readers, and how to go about reverting rights. For authors who already know that they wish to pursue reversion, the resource page features guidance and letter templates that authors can refer to when contacting their publishers to request a reversion of rights. The resource page also highlights the success stories of authors who have regained their rights in order to release their works under open licenses, make their works available as low-cost e-books, repackage a book series, or even place their works with a new publisher.

Over the years, our members have reached out to ask for more information about what happens at the point when a publisher agrees to revert rights. In this post, we’ll cover:

  • Getting the files and permission you need;
  • Understanding and tracking ongoing obligations related to your work;
  • Purchasing your publisher’s inventory of your work; and
  • Updating the Copyright Office’s records with new ownership information.

Getting the Files and Permission You Need

When reverting rights, it is helpful to ask your publisher for both the physical materials and any the intellectual property rights you may need for future printings. In fact, some publishers are required by the terms of the publishing contract to provide authors with these items. The items that you may need include not only the digital design files and rights for the text you created, but also the files for art and other materials created by third parties, as well as the permission to use these items if permission is required.

For example, authors who want to reuse the same cover art when they make their reverted books newly available may need to acquire both the source files and a copyright license to reuse cover art that was created or commissioned by their publisher. (Of course, when it applies, authors may also rely on fair use to incorporate third-party works in their works.)

Understanding and Tracking any Ongoing Obligations

Your publisher may have other obligations to fulfill after the reversion. It may, for instance, still need to make royalty payments for sales accrued before the reversion or from other sales or licenses that are still ongoing. As you finalize your reversion, it is important to understand your publisher’s accounting cycle and ask for clarification if you are unsure how and when your publisher plans to account for past or ongoing sales.

Importantly, authors who regain rights need to understand whether any outstanding licenses to their works are still in place and how these licenses will be treated. For example, if an author’s publisher has licensed the French translation rights to her book to another publisher, she will want to know whether the license is exclusive or nonexclusive, whether the license survives the reversion, and whether she can expect any ongoing royalties or other payments for the license. If the license is exclusive and survives the reversion, the author’s reversion is subject to that license. This means that she cannot make and sell French translations of her book without violating the other publisher’s exclusive rights. But she may have ongoing royalties for the sales of the French translation, which she should be sure to track.

Purchasing Your Publisher’s Inventory

If your publisher has any remaining copies of your book in stock, you may consider offering to purchase the remaining inventory. In fact, some contracts give authors the right to purchase stock at the time of reversion at cost. This gives authors the opportunity to purchase these copies at a discounted price in order to sell or otherwise share these copies.

If you are not interested in purchasing copies, or your publisher does not want to sell them to you, it is still a good idea to find out how many copies the publisher has left in its inventory. Often, publishers explicitly retain the right to sell their existing inventory in reversion agreements, subject to continued royalty payments to the author. If you know how many copies the publisher has in stock, you can better understand and track any royalties due from these sales.

Updating the Copyright Office Records with New Ownership Information

Last but not least, after reversion, authors should consider updating the U.S. Copyright Office’s records with their works’ new ownership information. The records held by the U.S. Copyright Office will likely list your publisher as the copyright owner (“claimant”) and/or the point of contact for permission to use the work. After reversion, it is up to you (as the new owner of the copyright) to update this information.

Fortunately, new copyright owners can record a transfer of copyright with the Copyright Office to update these records. Updating the Copyright Office’s records after you revert rights establishes a public record of your new ownership rights. This will make it easier for future users to find accurate information about the current ownership status of your work. When people know whom to contact for permission, it can help increase the dissemination of your work, and potentially your compensation if you license paid uses.

A transfer of copyright can be recorded by submitting a signed or certified, complete, and legible copy of the document being recorded (such as a rights reversion letter from your publisher) to the Copyright Office, together with the required fee (currently $105 for a single title) and Form DCS cover sheet. If accepted, the Register of Copyright will record the document and issue a certificate of recordation. As of July 2019, the processing time for recording transfers or other documents related to copyright is 9 months. For more information on recording transfers of copyright ownership, see Copyright Office Circular 12: Recordation of Transfers and Other Documents.

If you want to know more about how to get your rights back, check out the digital or print version of our guide to Understanding Rights Reversion. For guidance on self-publishing following a reversion of rights, see How Traditionally Published Authors Can Repackage and Self-Publish Their Backlist by author Jess Lourey.

If you have questions about rights reversion you’d like to see Authors Alliance address, send a message to reversions@authorsalliance.org.

Why Get the Rights Back to Your Work?

Posted July 16, 2019

Readers familiar with Authors Alliance’s work will know that we’ve created a suite of resources to help authors get the rights back to their works, including a guide to Understanding Rights Reversion, templates and guidance on how to craft a persuasive rights reversion letter, and information on termination of transfer under U.S. law.

One question we’re often asked is “Why would I want to get my rights back?” The most general answer to this question is “To increase your work’s availability and reach more readers.” Within the context of this broad goal, there are as many specific motivations to revert rights as there are authors. We’ve collected some of these motivations (and outcomes) here to inspire authors to consider whether their books’ availability might benefit from reversion.

Making an Out-of-Print Book More Widely Available to Readers
After James O’Donnell’s book, Augustine: Confessions, fell out of print, its use was largely limited to library copies, which were often non-circulating. By reverting rights, James was able make his book openly available online where it maintained a vibrant readership. In fact, James feels that the continued availability of his book online created the market for a print version, and he subsequently negotiated two new agreements to reprint the work.

Repackaging Earlier Books with a New Book to Complete a Trilogy
Tracee Garner had written two novels in a planned trilogy, but never finished the series. After fans requested that she finish the series, Tracee reverted rights to the first two books so that she can edit and repackage them with a new book to complete and self-publish the trilogy.

Increasing Opportunities for a Book to be Used in the Classroom
Dale Cannon’s religious studies textbook, Six Ways of Being Religious, wasn’t selling very well and he wanted the book to become better known and more widely used in university classrooms. Dale reverted rights to his book and made it available in his university’s online repository under a Creative Commons license where it has been downloaded more than 2,500 times in two years. Dale is currently exploring offering a low-cost, print-on-demand version.

Reducing Costs for Learners
David Ullman was motivated to revert rights to his textbook, The Mechanical Design Process, after his publisher had steeply increased the price of his book over his protests. David felt that the price was harming sales of the book, so he reverted rights. With his rights back in hand, David self-published a new edition of the book at a price point that is more affordable to practitioners and students. Even though he drastically cut the list price, David now makes more per book than when the book was sold through his former publisher.

Making a Book Available in a Format Requested by Readers
Katie Hafner’s publisher had stopped printing her book, A Romance on Three Legs, instead making it available only as an e-book. Her readers were constantly reaching out to her, requesting information on where they might purchase a physical copy of her book. Katie felt strongly that, in order to reach her target audience, her book had to be available for purchase in print. By explaining to her publisher that her audience was more likely to purchase a traditional print copy than an e-book, Katie successfully persuaded her publisher to make her book available for purchase in print again.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” motivation for seeking a rights reversion. We encourage authors to position themselves for success after obtaining a reversion of rights by considering their motivations for reversion and developing a plan for increasing their book’s availability before they initiate a reversion request. For more inspiration from a range of authors, browse our reversion success stories.

Reversionary Rights Around the World

Posted April 9, 2019
image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

For creators who want their works to be widely shared and enjoyed, terminating transfers of copyright are a powerful option for getting works back out in front of audiences. Authors Alliance has long been a proponent of giving authors statutory rights to terminate transfers of copyright (often called “reversionary” or “termination of transfer” laws). Among other benefits, these rights give creators the ability to give new life to works that have outlived their commercial lives but are nonetheless historically and culturally valuable.

A new study of reversion laws by Joshua Yuvaraj and Rebecca Giblin found that 56% of the 193 countries examined have author-protective laws that allow authors to get their rights back from publishers if certain conditions are met. Yuvaraj and Giblin categorized the reversionary laws they identified based on their triggering circumstances: 1) a set period of time (from, for example, the date of the publication agreement or the author’s death), 2) a work’s out of print status, 3) the publisher’s active use of the work, and 4) other situations (such as if the publisher goes bankrupt).

Yuvaraj and Giblin will continue to examine these reversionary laws in more detail, but initially suggest that laws that allow authors to reclaim rights in the event that rights are not being exploited or if there are no/low sales of their works would help authors’ ongoing interests in their works while protecting publishers’ commercial interests. Read more about Yuvaraj and Giblin’s findings here.

Authors interested in learning more about reversionary laws around the world can explore the beta version of the Creative Commons Rights Back Resource. We encourage experts to contribute to the resource to help expand the database of country-specific laws.

Authors interested in learning more about terminating transfers under U.S. law can visit the Authors Alliance/Creative Commons Termination of Transfer tool at rightsback.org and the Authors Alliance Termination of Transfer resources page. If you are not eligible to exercise a statutory right to terminate a transfer of copyright, you may want to explore options for getting rights back by exercising contractual provisions or through negotiation.

Authors Alliance Guides Now Available on Project MUSE

Posted April 2, 2019

We’re pleased to announce that our educational guidebooks for authors—which cover rights reversion, open access, fair use, and publication contracts—are now available on Project MUSE, a repository for monographs and journals created by Johns Hopkins University in cooperation with libraries and university presses. Founded in 1995, Project MUSE is a non-profit home for scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, and now contains over 674 journals and 50,000 books.

The full range of titles on the platform is available via library subscription; many works (including all Authors Alliance titles) are also freely available to everyone on open access terms thanks to the Open Access Books Program, an initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with the goal of enabling OA works on the platform to be “broadly shared, widely discoverable, and richly linked.”

Four Authors Alliance guidebooks displayed on a shelf

Starting with the publication of Understanding Rights Reversion in 2015, each Authors Alliance guide has been made freely available to view and download on our website and via the Internet Archive. For those who prefer a traditional book format, the guides are also available for purchase in print.

Now, thanks to Project MUSE, our guides also contain rich metadata to make them discoverable and available to libraries. The PDFs also meet the Project MUSE standards of accessibility for print-disabled readers. We are grateful to Kelley Squazzo and Philip Hearn at Project MUSE for their assistance in making our guides available via the Project MUSE platform. Publishers interested in adding their titles to the Open Access Books Program at Project MUSE can learn more here.

Rights Reversion Success Story: James O’Donnell

Posted February 12, 2019

Head shot of James O'Donnell

James J. O’Donnell is the University Librarian at Arizona State University Libraries and has published widely on the history and culture of the late antique Mediterranean world. He successfully reverted rights to his 1992 edition of Augustine’s Confessions and made the book available in an open access digital version. Continued interest in the online book led to a subsequent reprint and later an additional paperback print run. Professor O’Donnell shared his rights reversion experience with us in the following Q&A.

Authors Alliance: How did you first learn of rights reversion?

James O’Donnell: In the course of becoming involved in digital publishing in 1990 and after (and founding the oldest open access online journal in the humanities, Bryn Mawr Classical Review), I had been around conversations about rights and about signing away as little as you need to [in a contract]. The book in question, Augustine: Confessions (Oxford University Press 1992, 3 volumes) was in my mind at the time, so I familiarized myself [with rights reversion].

My book was expensive and specialized, with a first print run of 1,000 copies and a provision that I would get royalties if it sold more than 600 copies. The book sold for $300, or about $550 in 2018 dollars. I figured this meant that OUP expected to sell 600 copies, or a few more. In fact it had a reprinting of 250 copies and sold out all of those. In 1995, my editor at Oxford told me with regret that she had been unsuccessful in getting a paperback edition, so the book was going out of print. I was remarkably cheerful about this prospect [because it made the book eligible for reversion].

AuAll: What motivated you to request your rights back?

JJO: I had been speaking of digital “postprints” for some time and had in fact posted an earlier book of mine from 1979 (long out of print) in that way. The Oxford volumes of Augustine’s Confessions were meant to be of high value for scholarly users, from student to researcher, and I was well aware that use was naturally limited to library copies, often non-circulating. I wanted better.

AuAll: Were you eligible to exercise a clause in your contract granting reversion rights?

JJO: Yes, I wrote a simple letter to Oxford University Press. There was a clear clause in the contract.

AuAll: How has the reversion helped you? What have you been able to do with your book since reversion?

JJO: First, I worked with a consortium of scholars doing Internet publishing in classics to create a digital online version of my edition of Augustine’s Confessions, now hosted at the Stoa Consortium and at Georgetown University (my former institution) on mirror sites. This resource has been available for about twenty years and is regularly praised as a teaching and research tool of considerable value.

Then, in about 2000, OUP decided to have another publisher, Sandpiper Books, do limited run reprints (not yet print-on-demand) of some of their “greatest hits” of scholarly publishing in classics, and chose to include Confessions in the series. When they told me they intended to do this, I reminded them that the rights were now mine, and we proceeded to agree on terms for licensing this specific use for a modest stipend.

Around 2012, OUP decided that the book indeed had legs and made it available in paperback. It has been in print in that format since 2013 for $179, or about one-third the original hardcover price. It was surely the case that the digital presence with open access on the web kept my book in mind and created the market for those who decided they needed a print copy. It is highly unlikely that the book would have had better sales without the e-version (and quite likely that it would not have done as well).

AuAll: What advice do you have for other authors who might want to pursue a reversion of rights?

JJO: Authors should know what they want out of their books, other than the traditional thin stream of royalties that academic books receive. They should inform themselves about their rights, sign rights away carefully at the outset, and then keep an eye on just what outcome they are looking for. My sense is that with the ease of print-on-demand technology, many books may effectively never go “out of print,” requiring a different kind of strategy and vigilance for authors.

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We couldn’t agree more! Authors should be informed about their rights, and have strategies in mind for using them wisely—not only at the time a book deal is signed, but in future years, as well. To that end, we recommend two of our educational resources to help authors understand what exactly rights reversion is, how reversion fits into a book publication contract, and how to successfully secure a reversion of rights.

If, like Professor O’Donnell, you have previously published books and wish to learn more about regaining your rights, visit our Rights Reversion resource page, where you’ll find our complete guide to Understanding Rights Reversion, letter templates for use in contacting your publisher, and a collection of reversion success stories from other authors who successfully regained their rights and made their works more widely available.

If you currently have a book in progress and have not yet placed it with a publisher, we also recommend visiting our Publication Contracts resource page, which features our new guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts. Knowing about rights reversion and reversion clauses before you sign your publication contract can help to clarify the conditions for reversion and pave the way for a successful reversion of rights in the future.

Rights Reversion Success Story: Jessamyn West

Posted April 17, 2018

Headshot of Jessamyn WestAs part of our occasional Q&A series on alternative publishing models, we talked with librarian extraordinaire Jessamyn West, who successfully reverted rights to her book Without A Net, and released it under a CC-BY license on unglue.it, a website that uses crowdfunding to support the release of e-books that are made freely available by a variety of rightsholders.

Authors Alliance: Why did you decide to make Without a Net freely available, and how did you decide to use unglue.it to achieve this goal?

Jessamyn West: When I wrote Without A Net in 2011, I was a reluctant author. I like to share my writing as widely as possible, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if the best way to do that is through a major publisher or by reducing barriers (i.e., costs) to access. While I adored my editor, I had a frustrating experience with my publisher—a lot of pushback on minor issues, a lot of extra work on my part for a product where I was ultimately not the primary beneficiary—and would not choose to publish this way again.

I wanted to make the book available, but did not really know or understand the process of getting my rights “back” from the publisher. I’d known people who did it in one way or another, but had always assumed, somehow, that it was prohibitively expensive or would involve arguments or lawyers.

I’ve always been a fan of opening up access (my work with the Internet Archive’s Open Library project was primarily geared towards this), and when Eric [Hellman, unglue.it’s founder] approached me to try out Unglue.it, I was excited to help out. It combined my two loves, which are (1) open access, and (2) improving user experience design for community tech tools. I was pleased with how it all worked.

When I worked with the Authors Alliance to help authors share their books on Open Library I got more interested in finding a way to do this with my book. In conversation with Eric Hellman, whom I’ve known through library circles since the early library blogger days, I learned that it wouldn’t be as expensive as I’d previously thought. So I figured, “Hey, what the heck?”

AuAll: Can you walk us through the process of regaining rights from your publisher in order to make the book openly available?

JW: It was so simple! I just sent them an email saying, “Hey, I’d like to do this,” and they said, “OK, it costs $2,000.” We had to do a little bit of back and forth since they had to send me an official contract for all of this, but the bottom line is they are a business, my book was seven years old and not really all that current, and this was just another (good) business deal for them. The hardest part of the whole thing was obtaining an EPUB version. When they made a digital version of the book, it was just a PDF and they sent the book away to an ebook jobber to make the Kindle version. So they didn’t have an EPUB version to give me, and Eric had to do the EPUB creation on his own which was, honestly, probably the most difficult part of the whole thing. EPUB creation is challenging to do right.

AuAll: How did you decide which Creative Commons license to apply?

JW: I opted for the least restrictive I could be without putting it in the public domain, so it’s CC-BY. I wanted my name to stay attached to it, but I didn’t care if people remixed it, sold it, whatever. This took a little bit of thinking on my part, because we’ve all seen publishers who basically repackage public domain materials and sell them to people who are not savvy enough to realize they can get the same content for free . I dislike this, but I didn’t feel like it was my crusade with this particular activity. I also think there is a good argument to be made for CC BY-SA (a share alike) license, just to pay it forward, but again I feel like I was working with digitally divided folks and I wanted the license restrictions to be as easy to understand as possible.

AuAll: Is there anything that surprised you, or that you wish you’d known before you started?

JW: I tend to dive in first and read the fine print later. While it only cost $2,000 to get the rights from my publisher, there were some ancillary costs (sending out “premiums,” cash processing fees, etc, associated with the unglue.it crowdfunding model) that added up that I should have taken into account as part of this process. I had a very supportive community behind me, and could have crowdsourced more of the associated expenses if I had been more deliberate on how I went about it. I was also somewhat surprised how little my publisher cared, which made me feel better about severing my business relationship with them. Not that I had negative feelings about them, but their primary concern is money and not helping ease the digital divide. I’m the opposite, so this approach made sense for me.

AuAll: Have you received any feedback from readers who have benefited from finding your book online?

JW: Most of the people I have heard from are people who were involved in the process, people who helped support it or people who helped me go through this process. I feel in some ways like we’re in an age of aspirational texts. People like having books around “just in case,” or because they’re interested in the topic, and they’re certainly easy to accumulate, but I haven’t heard from anyone who has actually READ the book recently, though I’d certainly like to.

AuAll: Do you have any words of wisdom for other authors who are thinking of “ungluing” or otherwise making their books available under a Creative Commons license?

JW: I am happier not worrying if it’s going to be okay for me to send a PDF of my own book to someone who asks me about something in it. My book came out in 2011 in the same week my father died suddenly, so I was sufficiently distracted that I didn’t really give it the send-off that it deserved. This gave me a second chance to make a modest big deal about the work that I’d done and the ideas that I was hoping to spread, and I was glad I got a chance to do that. Eric was an incredibly engaged and helpful steward of this entire process, so if someone is thinking “I’d like to do this, but how?” I strongly urge them to get in touch with him.

Jessamyn West is a librarian and community technologist who lives in Central Vermont.

 

Readers And Book Markets Benefit From Authors Reclaiming Their Rights

Posted April 3, 2018

Headshot of Paul HealdThe following guest post by Paul Heald describes his recent analysis of the beneficial effect of rights reversion and termination of transfer in the traditional and ebook markets. Heald is the Richard W. and Marie L. Corman Professor of Law at the University of Illinois. He is also a fellow and associated researcher at CREATe, the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, based at the University of Glasgow. His recent publications have focused on economic aspects of the public domain, patents, studies of best-selling fiction and musical compositions, and the behavior of famous trademarks in product and service markets. In addition to his scholarly work, Heald has published three novels.

Authors Alliance has been encouraging authors to recapture their copyrights in order to “free up” their works for new uses and wider distributions, either with new publishers or through online postings under Creative Commons licenses. Authors do benefit from rights reversions, but a recent empirical study, “Copyright Reversion to Authors (and the Rosetta Effect): An Empirical Study of Reappearing Books” shows that consumers of books are likely to experience a significant benefit from author rights reclaimings as well.

In my sample of 1,909 book titles, between 20-23% appear to be in print only because of rights reversion.

Here’s a reminder of the four ways that authors who have assigned their rights to a publisher can get back their copyrights:

1)  Ask the publisher nicely (always an option, and for help with this, see the Authors Alliance guide to rights reversions);

2)  File a notice to terminate an author’s prior transfer of rights under section 304 of the Copyright Act (a right which arises 56 or 75 years after publication for a work first published between 1923-77);

3)  File a notice to terminate an author’s prior transfer of rights under section 203 of the Copyright Act (a right which arises 35 years after the transfer of a work first published after Jan 1, 1978)  (for help with this, see the Authors Alliance/Creative Commons Termination of Transfer Tool at rightsback.org);

4) Exploit a key limit on grants under pre-digital era publishing contracts that did not effectively assign ebooks rights (a contract that merely assigns all rights to a work “in book form” does not effectively transfer ebook rights).

Authorial assertion of ebook rights under this fourth option is known as the Rosetta Effect, after a famous case which worked a surprise de facto “reversion” of ebooks rights to authors in 2002.

My study was undertaken to test the claim that a change in the ownership of copyright in a work from original publisher back to an author (or her estate) might lead to the better dissemination of out-of-print or otherwise commercially inactive works. The study focused on the availability of more than 1,909 new editions of books that had been at one time New York Times (NYT) bestsellers, titles by NYT bestselling authors (whether the book was a bestseller or not), and books reviewed in the NYT Book Review.

A close analysis of the identity of current publishers of older titles shows that the recapture of author copyrights through the termination rights of sections 203 and 304, along with author retention of ebook rights under Random House v. Rosetta Books (2002), have significantly increased the availability of book titles to consumers.

The data reveal a market for reverted books that is exploited by independent publishers. The most active, Open Road Media, describes its business model on its web site: “We are committed to bringing back the backlist, making reverted titles and works that have never been converted to digital format widely available as ebooks….This program is for authors whose rights have reverted, whose titles have not previously been digitized, or who are looking to have their works available as ebooks.”

One can see Rosetta at work in the first chart below and the effect of section 203 in the second chart. Both charts list the publishers of ebooks (“e”), bound volumes (“b”), and both ebook and bound versions of a title (“e/b”). Original publishers, almost all well-known traditional publishers, are denominated PUB, while new independent publishers like Open Road, are denominated IND.

None of the bestsellers in the chart above are yet eligible for termination, so in theory, all of the copyrights are still controlled by the original publishers, who seem only interested in keeping approximately 66% of the titles in print (other sub-samples of older bestsellers show original publishers keeping as few as 12% of titles in print).

What explains the 18% additional titles offered by new independent publishers? The 16% of titles available only as ebooks are most likely due to the holding in Rosetta which gave many (but hardly all) authors the chance to control digital (but not bound) versions of their works.  Beneficiaries of the ruling can partner with a new, sometimes digital-only press, to make their works available.

A look at reversion eligible books from the same era tells an additional story about the effects on availability based on section 203 termination rights:

All the works are termination eligible, but original publishers have decided to exploit about half of their older titles. (What author says “no” when Random House asks to make her out-of-print bestseller available in a new edition?) One sees reversion at work in the 9% of books offered by new independent publishers in both ebook and bound versions. The 22% available as ebooks only would seem to be in print as a result of Rosetta or of the termination threat of section 203. It’s hard to know which. But in any event, the good news is that more books are becoming more available through authorial reclaiming of rights and making new arrangements to publish them (a whopping 31%  in this sample!)

The full paper, which is available here, analyzes a number of different data sets and provides an appendix of rights reversion schemes around the world. The paper also notes that few authors bother making a formal termination filing with the U.S. Copyright Office (they should!). The sending of a termination notice to a publisher, or the looming likelihood of termination, seems to be enough to create this new market being exploited by independent publishers. The story in the U.S. seems fairly clear: Rosetta and the availability of termination under section 203 and 304 are helping bring older works back into print. It is less easy to track individual author rights reversions through asking publishers for rights, but the experiences of numerous Authors Alliance members in reclaiming copyrights in this manner suggest that this option should be more widely used and recognized.

Rights Reversion Success Story: Dale Cannon

Posted March 27, 2018

Photo of Dale CannonDale Cannon is Professor Emeritus of philosophy and comparative religion at Western Oregon University. In March of 2017, he reverted rights to his religious studies textbook, Six Ways of Being Religious and made the book available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license in Western Oregon Library’s Digital Commons open access repository. During the past year, the book has been downloaded nearly 600 times. Professor Cannon shared his rights reversion experience for us in the following Q&A.

Authors Alliance: How did you first learn of rights reversion?

Dale Cannon: I first learned of rights reversion at a workshop/conference I attended for textbook authors the year after my book was published (1996).  It was all new to me.  The one thing that particularly stood out was the claim that absolutely none of the polished contract that I had received from Cengage Learning (at the time it was operating under the name Wadsworth Publishing) was “written in stone;” every word of the contract had been open to negotiation. (That, of course, doesn’t mean that Cengage would have readily accepted a rights reversion clause that favored my interests.)  About such matters I was completely naïve when I signed the contract.

I believed at the time that Cengage/Wadsworth was the best publisher I could have secured, as they had a track record of publishing several books closely related to the orientation and content of my book, and their publishing campaigns for those books seemed ideal.  So I’m skeptical that I would have had much leverage to get them to include a rights reversion clause, especially one favoring my interests.

AuAll: What motivated you to request your rights back?

DC: Several factors motivated my request.  One is that the book wasn’t selling well, due to a failure on Cengage’s part to mount a major sales campaign (as had been promised by my editor, who left the company shortly after the contract was signed).  The editor subsequently assigned to my book had no interest in books on religious studies and ignored the previous editor’s enthusiasm and promises.  On top of that, the original price of about $27.00 had long since been left behind and was 3 and 4 times that by the early years of the 21st century.  But I was very interested in having the book become better known and more widely used in university classrooms.  It wasn’t simply a textbook in the comparative study of religions; it was distinctly different and broke new creative ground in the theory of religions.

I have since learned more about self-publishing and how attitudes among academics toward self-publishing have changed a lot and become much more positive.  Of course, I could not consider any such option until I had rights reverted to me.

AuAll: How did you go about requesting a rights reversion?

DC: I simply wrote to the editor (14 years after publication) requesting reversion of rights, explaining how sales had been very low for quite some time (especially for a textbook), with no prospect of that changing.  Clearly my publisher wasn’t making any money on the book, so warehousing remaining copies was becoming a problem, not to mention the prospect of a reprinting.

AuAll: Were you eligible to exercise a clause in your contract granting reversion rights?

DC: There is a clause in the contract entitled “Reversion of Rights,” that seems to be entirely conditional upon the book being “declared out of print in the United States” plus 90 days after such declaration.  I did not appeal to this clause of the contract when I wrote requesting reversion.

AuAll: Did you face any obstacles in getting your rights back?  Is there anything you wish you’d known going into the process?

DC: I did not face any obstacles.  I received communication back from my request within a week, as I recall, and the official reversion of rights within about a month.  The persons with whom I had communication regarding reversion were all cordial and easy to work with.  There is nothing I would have preferred doing differently regarding the process.

AuAll: What advice do you have for other authors who might want to pursue a reversion of rights?

DC: There are several different circumstances that need to be taken into account.

Before the contract is signed, by all means try to have a reversion of rights included in the contract.  Do some research and have some alternative models at hand for how it might be worded.  Do take the publisher’s interests into account and, if possible, provide reasons for reversion that not only will be understandable to the publisher but also make it attractive to them.  Be prepared to go to another publisher.  It would be best if you have another acceptance offer in hand, or at least the strong likelihood of one.

After publication, a reversion of rights, in a situation where there is not a strong reversion of rights clause with clear conditions that are met, there should be no problem.  If there is no such clause, then you would need to establish that it would be in the publisher’s best interest to revert the rights to you—which could be a very tall order, unless the future prospect of sales, etc., is very dim, as was the case for me.

AuAll: How has the reversion helped you?  What have you been able to do with your book since reversion?

DC: Reversion has given me freedom to do what I want with Six Ways of Being Religious, including publishing it myself, and possibly finding another publisher. Currently, I have chosen to have it digitized and published on my university’s digital commons.

Since doing so, it has been downloaded more than 500 times in many different countries around the world.  I am considering offering print-on-demand and possibly an ebook version, both for a small price.

Rights Reversion Success Story: David G. Ullman

Posted January 31, 2018

Headshot of David UllmanDavid G. Ullman is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering Design at Oregon State University and an expert on product design and decision-making best practices. After securing a reversion of rights, Ullman published the sixth edition of The Mechanical Design Process, a leading text used to teach mechanical engineers the processes of product design. We asked Professor Ullman to share his rights reversion success story with us.

Authors Alliance: What motivated you to request your rights back?

David Ullman: When The Mechanical Design Process was first introduced in 1992, I insisted that it be priced at less than $50. I felt this was a fair price for a university text on the topic. McGraw-Hill, the publisher, agreed and released it at $49. Over the years, McGraw-Hill steadily raised the price over my protests. By 2017 the list price was $166. University bookstores sold it for $149. I contacted McGraw-Hill, protesting the price increases. I told them that I did not understand their business model, the price was usury, and they were killing the sales of the book. Where inflation would have taken the book to $85, they had nearly doubled that. Finally, in early 2017, when the annual sales for the fifth edition (2015) had dropped from 4,000 copies per year to 1,000, I offered to buy the copyright, and they agreed, at no cost to me. Thus, in November 2017 I released a new edition of the book at a price practitioners and students can afford: $49.95. It is interesting to note that as soon as the agreement was signed, McGraw-Hill’s list price was lowered by $30.

AuAll: How and when did you first hear about rights reversion?

DU: I always knew that it was possible to buy back rights. When I decided to request the rights back, I did a lot of online reading to be sure I understood the ins and outs.

AuAll: Could you walk us through the process of requesting your rights back?

Continue reading

Spotlight on Open Access and Academic Publishing:
A Q&A With Eric von Hippel

Posted August 15, 2017

headshot of Eric von Hippel

Just in time for the 2017 back-to-school season, we’re featuring a series of posts on alternatives to traditional publishing models. Earlier this year, Authors Alliance advisory board member and MIT professor Eric von Hippel released his book Free Innovation under a Creative Commons license—the newest addition to his online collection of freely available works. We asked him about his experiences with rights reversion, open access, and how academic authors and publishers can help to make books openly available.

Authors Alliance: You successfully regained the rights to your 1988 book The Sources of Innovation from Oxford University Press (OUP). How did you secure a reversion of rights? What have you been able to do with your book since reversion?

Eric von Hippel: When I contracted with OUP for my first book in the 1980s, I was not aware of open access as a possibility, so I simply signed a standard contract giving all rights to OUP. About 20 years later, I had become very interested in open access. I therefore asked OUP to allow me to conduct an experiment. OUP would allow me to post a free electronic version on my MIT website. If hard copy sales declined in the next period, I would pay OUP $1,000 as compensation for lost sales. If they went up, OUP would keep the profits and allow me to keep posting the free version. OUP agreed to these terms. Happily, sales of printed copies went up, so I was able to keep posting the free version from then on.

With respect to actually getting back the copyright for Sources of Innovation so I could go fully open access: About 5 years ago, my excellent activist OA colleagues (thanks especially to Ellen Finnie Duranceau of MIT) told me that I had a window of time in which I could get the copyright returned to me. That window was fast-approaching in the case of my 1988 book, so I simply wrote to my editor at OUP, asking him to give me back the copyright without my having to go through the formal process as dictated by the law. Sales were low at that point, so he simply said “fine,” and wrote me a letter transferring all rights back to me.

AuAll: We’ve written previously about MIT Press’ pioneering approach to open access. To date, you’ve published two books with MIT: Democratizing Innovation and Free Innovation. Your publication contract with MIT gave you the right to post free ebooks from the very beginning, ensuring that both books were “born open access.” Based on your experience, can you offer some advice to other authors—and publishers—who want to embrace this model?

EvH: In response to your question, I talked to my editor at MIT Press to see if they had by now evolved a standard set of OA practices. Turns out they have not. They are still experimenting. Sometimes, depending on specifics of a book—for example, is it a textbook?—their experiments result in negative financial consequences for the Press relative to their sales projections. Sometimes the consequences are financially quite acceptable. Things are also changing quite rapidly in terms of book-reading behaviors. Specifically with respect to my own books with MIT Press, the 2005 book had very acceptable print sales despite the availability of a free eBook version. The jury is still out on my new 2017 book.

Frankly, these days authors have to insist on an open access eBook option if they are to have a hope of getting a publisher to agree. And, they very well might be turned down even if they do insist. As we know, academic presses are not hugely profitable, and they cannot afford to take big risks. I have a feeling that a standard OA option that may emerge in the end will be something like the model now increasingly offered by publishers of academic articles: If authors want open access, they may increasingly have to agree to pay a fee to compensate publishers for (possibly) lower print copy sales.

AuAll: How did you select which Creative Commons license to apply to these books?

EvH: I really did not know which one to use—I just sort of chose the license others seemed to be using without really understanding the pros and cons. I will be able to make a more informed choice using information supplied by Authors Alliance by the time decision-making for my next book comes around. [Chapter Four of Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding Open Access has additional information about selecting an open access license.]

AuAll: What results do you see from publishing your books openly? What do you see as the pros and cons of embracing this model?

Like most academic authors, I write books to have them read, not to earn royalties. The increase in readership I have experienced by going OA is really worth it to me—it makes me very happy. Evidence to date is that about 10 times more eBooks are downloaded than print copies are sold, so I guesstimate that I am reaching about 10 times more people with the ideas I find exciting than I could have done in the pre-OA era. It especially makes me happy that now teachers can assign even a single chapter of one of my books in a class in a developing country if they wish, without worrying about burdening students with any purchase costs.

Personally, I don’t see any negatives with respect to going OA—only positives. I actually feel very proud that I can contribute to my colleagues and to scholarship in this enhanced way. I am very grateful to the Authors Alliance for making it easier for me and many others to accomplish an Open Access outcome.

AuAll: Do you have any other suggestions for authors on how they can make their works available in the ways that they want?

EvH: Open Access is a wonderful goal—but as a young academic, please don’t feel guilt or failure if you cannot negotiate open access agreements right from the start. At the beginning of an academic career, very few of us have much leverage with publishers to negotiate for open access. Certainly, in the case of my first book I was at the start of my academic work and had zero leverage. In fact I was just very happy to get published by a good academic press like OUP, and would have signed pretty much any “standard terms” they asked for.

If this is your case too, I would urge you not to feel badly if you have to sign a traditional contract assigning all rights to your publisher. Better to survive the academic rites of passage. You will have a long academic career, and will have increasing abilities to demand and negotiate open access for your work as your reputation grows.

AuAll: We are honored to count you among the advisory board members of Authors Alliance. Thank you for sharing your experiences with our readers!

EvH: I am totally proud to serve on the Advisory Board. Pam Samuelson, as we all know, was a crucial founding member of Authors Alliance. She was the one who asked me to join. In my experience, Pam has wonderful instincts about what will help scholars and scholarship with respect to openness, and I signed on to support both her and this wonderful idea.

(As a side story in closing—I should mention that I tend to regard Pam Samuelson as akin to an unstoppable force of nature when she gets behind something she believes in. I still remember hearing about and worrying about the (ultimately defeated) proposed settlement between Google and commercial publishers a few years back. At a certain point, Google felt the agreement was in the bag. They then began sending lawyers around around the country to inform academic authors and others about how we could expect to function in the new world they envisioned. Indeed, they said, they were sure we would learn to love that new world over time. In fact, many academics were strongly against that proposed settlement for very good reasons, but things looked very bleak for the resistance at that time.

Then one day I heard that Pam had taken up the cause and was working hard against it with a few others. To the inexperienced eye, Pam and her colleagues were a small and lonely academic crew against mighty Google legal phalanxes that extended to the horizon like an endless sea of Orcs. However, as soon as I heard Pam was in the fight I immediately relaxed. Indeed, I remember thinking as I listened to a talk at the Boston Public Library by the very confident Google lawyers: Can’t they see what is coming next? Don’t they know they are now the walking (actually, limousine-riding) dead—about to experience the equivalent of the Lord of the Rings Ghost Army?)

So, in sum: Right on Pam, and right on, Authors Alliance! Keep it up! We are proud to be in this battle for Open Access with you!

Eric von Hippel is T. Wilson Professor of Innovation Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and is also Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.  von Hippel graduated from Harvard College (BA), MIT (MS), and Carnegie Mellon University.  He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates, and numerous honors and academic prizes, such as the Humboldt Foundation Research Prize (2013), and the EU “Innovation Luminary” Award in 2015. 

von Hippel is known for his research into the sources of and economics of innovation. He has written three books on these topics, and also has published many articles in innovation management, ranging from the theoretical to the very practical.  Digital copies of all his books can be downloaded for free online from his MIT website at https://evhippel.mit.edu/books/