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Agents on limited licenses

18 March 2013

In a column written for the Bookseller, agent Peter Straus, who is MD of Rogers, Coleridge and White and also President of the UK Association of Authors Agents, has questioned whether it makes sense any longer for publishers to insist on signing contracts for the legal term of copyright. For publishers this has been an important consideration, giving them the control of a book for the full term of copyright unless it goes out of print and is not reprinted.

There are strong views on this amongst publishers. One publisher, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: 'It's a choice. If Peter Straus would like to insist on limited license, he's perfectly entitled to do so. At our publishing house, we always acquire rights for the term of our contract, that's our policy.'

What has brought about a change in how agents, and authors, feel about this is that it is getting ever hard to decide what constitutes being 'in print' When a book can sit as a computer file at a print on demand printer, it is certainly available, or can be made so very quickly. But in what sense is the publisher selling it? That will depend on whether their backlist has any promotion, of course, and may just mean that the publisher keeps control of the book without doing very much with it.

Publishers feel that they are entitled to have this control, having taken the initial risk on the book. But in the new world of changing relationships between publishers and authors, authors and their agents are beginning to weigh up more carefully what the publisher actually brings to the table and this rather anachronistic provision is seeming more and more out of date.

Society of Authors Deputy General Secretary Kate Pool said: 'My biggest concern is that publishers' contracts have out-of-print clauses that don't make sense in a world where it costs publishers practically nothing to make a book available to people. When something is selling absolutely fantastically two years after publication, it is quite obvious what authors are being paid might need to be re-addressed. Those problems disappear if you have a finite licensing period.'

There has already been a major tussle about ebook rights, as many older contracts are rather vague about who these belong to. Some agents have taken the view that they should set up their own agency operations to bring out their clients' out of print books as ebooks. But there's also been a lot of talk about conflict of interest and this is all part of the way in which agents are taking a new commercial and more militant approach to representing their authors' interests.