Category Archives: Rights Reversion

Spotlight on Rights Reversion & Termination of Transfer

Posted June 9, 2021
Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

Readers familiar with Authors Alliance’s work will know that we offer a suite of resources to help authors get back the rights to their works, including information on how to revert rights by exercising a contractual provision or through negotiating with a publisher and resources on how to terminate a transfer of copyrights under U.S. law. Authors who get their rights back can increase their works’ availability and reach more readers by making an out-of-print book more widely available, releasing their work in a more affordable format or under an open access license, or re-packaging and releasing books with a new look and feel.

In today’s post, we’ve gathered some resources about the concepts of rights reversion and termination. Whether you are a rights back newbie or a reversion and termination aficionado, we think you’ll learn something new by digging into these resources.

Reversion & Termination Basics

Rights Reversion
Reversion can be a powerful tool for authors, but many authors do not know where to start. A right of reversion is a contractual provision that permits authors to work with their publishers to regain some or all of the rights in their books when certain conditions are met. But authors may also be able to revert rights even if they have not met the triggering conditions in their contract, or if their contracts do not have a reversion clause at all. Our guide to Understanding Rights Reversion arms authors with the information and strategies they need to get their rights back and give their books a new life. We also provide templates and guidance on how to craft a persuasive rights reversion request letter.

Termination of Transfer
In the United States, termination of transfer laws enable authors to regain rights in their works that might have been signed away—even if their contracts contain language prohibiting it. To learn more about termination of transfer and how to evaluate whether a work is eligible for termination under U.S. law, authors can explore the Termination of Transfer Tool, which we developed in partnership with Creative Commons. Authors can also refer to Authors Alliance’s guidance and templates for how to provide notice of termination to rightsholders and record the termination with the U.S. Copyright Office.

A Deeper Dive

Reversion of Copyright in Europe
Assembling three contributions from a special section of the European Intellectual Property Review, this paper examines the topic of rights reversion in the context of the adoption of the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (2019), which introduced a new right of revocation to the EU copyright framework entitling authors and performers to reclaim rights in their works when they are not being exploited (a “use-it-or-lose-it” principle). Included is an article by Ula Furgal which explains that there is a lack of understanding what “sufficient exploitation” means, especially in the digital context, which should be addressed when implementing the revocation right. Also included is an article by Elena Cooper which argues that the common law tradition of freedom of contract is compatible with constraints on contractual transfers, and that U.K. reversion provisions historically were a direct response to the significant increase in the copyright term in 1911.

Foreign Contracts and U.S. Copyright Termination Rights: What Law Applies?
Judge Richard Arnold and Professor Jane Ginsburg discuss the choice of law issues that arise when agreements which are subject to the laws of other countries assign U.S. copyrights and purport to do so in perpetuity. Arnold and Ginsburg examine the question of what law governs the permissible scope of an author’s grant in light of U.S. law’s inalienable termination rights. Using the recent U.S. and English cases, Ennio Morricone Music Inc. v. Bixio Music Group Ltd. and Gloucester Place Music Ltd v. Le Bon, to illustrate the problem, the authors conclude that U.S. termination rights cannot be overridden by a contract subject to a different law.

Making Sense of the Termination Right: How the System Fails Artists and How to Fix It
A report by Public Knowledge demonstrates how the termination right is failing to protect the very creators that termination was designed to serve. The report critiques the complex eligibility, timing, and filing formalities for termination, which are exacerbated by ambiguities in the law and its application. On top of the onerous procedural requirements, the report highlights power asymmetries governing the negotiation, assignment, and reversion of ownership rights that also harm authors—particularly creators of color—who seek to exercise their termination rights. The report recommends six policy actions to help restore fairness and functionality to termination of transfer rights.

Author’s Interest Project: Preliminary Findings on Benefits of Copyright Reversion
Preliminary findings from the Author’s Interest project suggest that granting authors minimum reversion rights would open new economic opportunities for authors and publishers and help promote ongoing availability to the public. The research suggests that there is a need to investigate minimum reversion rights addressing books that have reached the end of their commercial life, uses that are not being exploited, situations where publishers go into liquidation, and term limits akin to U.S. termination of transfer laws.

Rights Reversion Success Story: Benjamin Keele

Posted May 4, 2021

We recently sat down with Benjamin Keele, Research and Instructional Librarian & Lecturer in Law at Indiana University and co-author (with James Heller and Paul Hellyer) of The Librarian’s Copyright Companion (2nd Edition), to learn more about his efforts to revert rights to the book. Thanks to their successful reversion, The Librarian’s Copyright Companion is now available for all to read under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Authors Alliance: What motivated you and your co-authors to request your rights back?

Benjamin Keele: When Jim, Paul, and I were writing the second edition of the Librarian’s Copyright Companion (Jim wrote the first edition), I had the notion that it would be great to release it open access from the beginning. However, we wanted the production, marketing, and imprimatur of a reputable publisher like Hein, so the book needed to make some commercial sense. Giving the book away eventually was always in the back of my mind. The Authors Alliance’s guide reminded me that it was possible to ask for the rights back, and after nearly ten years, I figured the book may have completed the commercial stage of its life.

I’m privileged enough to work in a research library, and I regularly hit paywalls and other access barriers to useful information. Making the book open access was a way we could make information about copyright available to anyone that found it useful.

AuthsAll: Can you walk us through the process of regaining rights and the arrangement you reached with your publisher?

BK: It was easier than I had expected. I emailed Hein’s editor we had worked with when preparing the book for publication. She then communicated with the other appropriate people within the company. Hein then supplied a contract amendment that eliminated future royalties and gave Hein a right of first refusal if the co-authors ever decide to write a third edition of the book. These conditions were acceptable, so we all signed the amendment.

AuthsAll: Is there anything that surprised you with the process?

BK: It had not occurred to me that there may be interest in a third edition on Hein’s part. The co-authors all agreed we don’t have the bandwidth at the moment for a new edition, but it is something to keep in mind for the future.

AuthsAll: How has reversion helped you (or how do you expect it will help you) reach your goals for your book?

BK: Our main goal for the book was to provide information on copyright law with a tilt toward users’ interests. When the book was published, our primary audience was other librarians whose institutions could buy copies for librarian professional development and for patrons. Now we can shift our audience to researchers who cannot borrow a copy for some reason or who are doing most of their research in digital resources. The reversion has let us make the book open access and with a permissive license. Maybe someone will choose to translate it or update portions. We have heard the book was assigned as a reading in library science courses. Making the book open access will make it easier to use for faculty and students.

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

BK: First, focus on finding the right person to ask. Hein is a relatively small organization and we were fortunate that our editor was still with the company. I am trying to help my mom obtain a rights reversion for her book. It was published with a small publisher that has since been acquired by a much larger company, and it seems if you don’t find the right person to contact, your request can easily be ignored.

Second, approach this like a medium- to long-term project and expect things to take some time. On the publisher’s end, rights reversions are probably not a very high priority, so even once you’ve found the person who can make a decision, some patience will be necessary.

Third, think about what you’d like to do with your work when you obtain the copyright. Maybe the publisher will be interested in working with you in a way that will further your goals. You can also do some preparations; the co-authors had all reached agreement on where we’d share the book (through the Internet Archive and our respective institutions’ digital libraries), so once the copyright was reverted, it took just a few clicks to put the book online.

A Daughter’s Quest to Give New Life—and New Covers—to her Father’s Books

Posted June 11, 2020

Covers for the first three of William Melvin Kelley’s republished books,
designed by his daughter Jesi Kelley

Even before The New Yorker article was published that sparked renewed interest in William Melvin Kelley’s books, his daughter Jesi Kelley was trying to find new ways to disseminate his books. Part of her and her father’s efforts stemmed from a lack of responsiveness from traditional publishers. While Mr. Kelley had finished a new manuscript, no one seemed interested in publishing it, or republishing his older works which had fallen out of print. But with a background in entertainment, the arts, and advertising sales, Ms. Kelley had ideas for how to market the books through new platforms, including creating audiobooks and self-publishing. The issue with her ideas, however, was distribution—how to best amplify her father’s voice so that people would know his books existed in the first place.

William Melvin Kelley (photo by William Anderson)

In a prescient manner, William Melvin Kelley told his daughter that he knew republishing his books on a large scale wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. So, when William Melvin Kelley passed away in early 2017, Ms. Kelley focused her energy on getting his books republished as a way to honor her father’s dreams and legacy. The first place to start was determining who had the rights to publishing the books. The Kelleys—Jesi, her sister, and their mother—owned the rights to two of the five books because the rights had reverted when the books fell out of print. One was in the control of an independent publisher. Another, A Different Drummer, was still controlled by Kelley’s original publisher, Doubleday, which had since been bought by Random House. The last book’s rights were “floating in the ether,” as Ms. Kelley puts it, because the family had done a reprint with Howard University Press years before, only for the press to go out of business.

The real turning point in Ms. Kelley’s efforts to republish her father’s books was after The New Yorker published an article on her father, and people started reaching out. Eventually Ms. Kelley chose to work with Random House and William Morris, her father’s old publisher and agent. Random House fit because it was a large publisher, meeting Ms. Kelley’s concern about large-scale marketing, and the publisher already owned the rights to one of the books. Additionally, it was easier for the Kelleys to work with one publisher and have some uniformity across publishing the books, rather than shop each book around to publishers across the world. The Kelleys chose to stay with William Morris, who had been the agency of record, because the company and its agents gained Ms. Kelley’s trust by taking the time to speak with her and answer questions she had, explaining topics such as rights reversion and copyright termination. William Morris also helped Ms. Kelley sort out ownership of the rights to her father’s books.

As Ms. Kelley navigated the publishing world—speaking with agents, publishers, and lawyers—she also turned to the internet for guidance and came upon the Authors Alliance website. According to Ms. Kelley, the Authors Alliance website had the most concise, comprehensive collection of information that pertained to managing authors’ rights. The resources were especially helpful when Ms. Kelley was negotiating the contract with Random House, which was for all five of William Melvin Kelley’s books. Ms. Kelley wanted to retain control over the look of her father’s books, especially the covers.

Jesi Kelley (photo by Noxie Studio)

Ms. Kelley’s dedication to the book covers stemmed from a prior publisher that put a cover on one of her father’s books that he absolutely hated, because he felt as if the cover had nothing to do with the book itself. In fact, the cover was a stock image that had been selected without having read William Melvin Kelley’s book first. Additionally, Ms. Kelley perceives of her father’s books as a series, because he built an entire world in which characters move in and out of the different books. Thus, she wanted the covers to reflect a unifying theme. So when Ms. Kelley negotiated with Random House for control over the books’ covers, she and her family were prepared to walk away from a deal if the publisher did not agree.

Ms. Kelley not only wanted control though; as an artist and graphic designer, she wanted to design the books’ covers too. Ms. Kelley gave a presentation to Random House on three potential cover ideas, which she designed after studying other books jackets she’d seen in the market. Luckily, Ms. Kelley’s vision for her father’s books aligned with Random House’s concerns on marketability, and she has designed the covers for the three books that have been published so far: A Different Drummer, Dem (available June 30, 2020), and A Drop of Patience (available June 30, 2020). She has also designed the covers for the remaining two books, Dancers on the Shore and Dunfords Travels Everywheres, which are expected to be republished in the fall of 2020.

When Ms. Kelley considers her father’s experience with publishing and her own time getting her father’s works republished, she’s especially aware of how nebulous the publishing industry can be. William Melvin Kelley didn’t think about the business of publishing, while for Ms. Kelley it was her entire focus in republishing her father’s books. She did not have to worry about writing the books themselves. She was also able to be more objective about her father’s books, and prioritize what really mattered to her and her family—getting the books back into print with covers that represented the stories. Her advice to writers is to take the time to put on their “marketing hat” and figure out what kind of book they’re writing and who they want the audience to be. For Ms. Kelley, she wants young black men of all backgrounds to read her father’s books—not just literary aficionados.

Authors Alliance is grateful to Diana Buck, Copyright Intern, for this post.

Rights Reversion: Opening Classic Works to New Global Audiences

Posted November 12, 2019

We are grateful to Anita Walz, Assistant Director of Open Education and Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech, for sharing the following rights reversion and open access success story. Anita worked with the authors of an out-of-print textbook to make a digitized version available online under a Creative Commons license for a new generation of students—not only at Virginia Tech but around the world. This guest post is published under a CC BY-NC-4.0 license.

“I want to assign this book as required reading for my graduate class. However, there are 125 students and I can’t find enough copies for students to access, borrow, or purchase. You’re a librarian. Can you help?”  Librarians often field such inquiries. Depending on the situation, such inquiries may lead to nuances of copyright, ebook acquisition, a search for substitute titles, assertion of fair use and exploration of more ideal scenarios: open access works and open educational resources. Sometimes such inquiries lead us outside of libraries to fact-find with authors and publishers on behalf of library users. The example of Veterinary Epidemiology: Principles and Methods is one such case.

In 2015 and 2016 I worked on my first rights reversion digitization project, inspired in part by the Authors Alliance’s publication Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available. Of course, I didn’t know that it was a rights reversion scenario when I first started. A new faculty member had approached me with a copyright quandary: She wanted to use an out-of-print seminal work from 1987 for her class of 125 students. The six copies owned by the library and the several used copies available for sale would not be nearly enough. A thorough check indicated that a digital version was not available for purchase. We also explored working with the Copyright Clearance Center, but the cost was exorbitant. Wanting to honor the professor’s selection of this particular text, my colleagues and I aided her in conducting an informed fair-use analysis and the library displayed selected chapters one-chapter-at-a-time via the library’s secure eReserve system. With the book obviously out of print, and wondering who owned the rights, I contacted the book’s authors in September 2015.

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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.