Know your rights

Not just moving old wine to new bottles

Writing last week at Digital Book World, Emily Williams posted a thoughtful piece about “Copyright, books and the unpredictable future”.

Williams, who co-chairs the rights subcommittee for the Book Industry Study Group, outlined the history of negotiations over format and geographic rights to help structure an answer to the question: are ebooks like paperback rights, critical to the whole, or does the format represent something different, as territorial rights are now?

In her post, Williams does a very nice job of talking about publishers who have shifted from “life of copyright” negotiations to shorter terms with broader controls over formats and markets.  The interplay of breadth with time frames is something few observers have captured as concisely.

It’s beyond the scope of her post, but Williams’ analysis made me wonder if the current copyright protections, most recently extended to nearly a century, will stand in a rapidly changing environment.  As covered by William Patry’s recent work, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, the push to limit the use of works for extended periods ultimately limits innovation.

Consistent with Williams’ thinking, those limitations will come under greater pressure as the range of uses and formats grows.  The old wine may conform to the shape of new bottles, but it feels as if most of the new bottles will be smaller and their contents will be consumed more quickly.

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