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Who owns e-book rights? Random House sues Rosetta Books.

26 March 2001

Random House, the Bertelsmann-owned largest publisher in the world, is suing the Internet start-up Rosetta Books ( for copyright infringement. Rosetta Books was set up recently to sell e-book versions of modern classics through its website. The basic premise of Random's suit is that its existing contracts with the authors give it the exclusive right to publish in book form, which the publisher maintains includes e-book formats.

Titles by major authors, including William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Parker, are involved. Rosetta made deals direct with the authors through their agents. The case revolves around the question of whether or not Random's original purchase of rights covers e-books. Since the contracts for the books involved are all pre-1995, they contain no specific mention of e-books or e-book rights. The authors' agents therefore claim that these rights are reserved by the author and that the authors are not infringing their contracts with Random House by selling them to Rosetta Books.


The Authors' Guild, not surprisingly, is siding with the authors. Paul Aiken, executive director of the Guild, told The New York Times: 'Everyone knew what a book was when these contracts were signed - volumes printed on paper - and this is nothing more than a bold and baseless rights grab.'

Agents - again, no surprise here - feel the same way. Don Maas, head of the Association of Authors' Representatives

The website of the American agents’ association ( offers a list of members, suggested points to raise with an agent who offers to represent you, and some further guidance on the author/agent relationship.

, said in a statement: 'This unjustified assertion of power on the part of the world's largest publishing conglomerate is distressing.'

The case has implications for all authors, as they may be in a position to sell new rights such as e-book rights on books they have already published, often in contracts specifying considerably higher royalties. As far as new contracts are concerned, it seems clear that publishers will fight to stop e-book rights being separated from print rights, not least because they are already launching their own e-book publishing programmes.

The outcome of this case could have a significant impact on authors' rights in relation to new and existing technologies going forward.