As the world gets smaller, ever more closely linked via digits, the grinding of the tectonic plates of different territorial rights regimes is beginning to cause stronger and stronger tremors throughout the book distribution system.

Project Gutenberg, a place we have come to look on as one of the benefactors of humanity with its free public domain offerings, has become involved in a lawsuit in Germany where the difference in rights between USA and Germany has provoked S. Fischer Verlag into action. They object to books which are in the public domain in USA being offered free in Germany where they are still in copyright. TeleRead has the story. Project Gutenberg’s policy on the rights issue has been to warn people that they shouldn’t download files for books which are still in copyright where they live. This putting the onus onto the customer, who is vanishingly unlikely to know what they are even talking about, is obviously not applying any real protection.

Project Gutenberg Australia, apparently unconnected to Project Gutenberg in USA, offers us Americans a download of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. This collection, which was published 1927 is still in copyright in America though anyone can freely obtain it from the Ozzie source.

It’s hard to see how frontiers can be applied to the world-wide-web, though authoritarian governments keep on trying. If information wants to be free, it also wants to be free of passport control. Surely the whole idea of having different territorial rights*, redolent of ships carrying physical books around the world, will ultimately have to yield the new reality. Amazon often lists the UK edition of a book on their US site — you can tell by the odd price, converted from sterling — and vice versa. They are always willing to take down the offending item upon application from the local rights holder, but you have to maintain eternal vigilance. Obviously if Oxford University Press publishes a book in Britain and also offers it for sale in America, this is not a large problem. If however they sell US rights to another publisher, clearly seepage of the OUP UK edition into the US market is liable to concern the US publisher who has paid for the rights. Publishers persist in selling foreign rights, as who wouldn’t access any source of ready money, but the whole edifice is tottering. In the end, will we bite bullets and just agree that the original publisher is the world-wide publisher? This could be satisfactory in a world where ebook distribution was the only format available — but that world is not one in which we live now, or maybe ever will. As long as we sell 75% or more of our product in physical form the issue of who has the right to sell it here or there will persist. One might also visualize a world-wide print book distribution system, named something like, say, maybe Amazon, which could efficiently ship any book to any person anywhere. But just as we are not ready to yield the entire market for books to the digital realm, nor are we eager to rush toward a single bookstore serving the whole world.

A uniform world copyright law is probably what’s really needed. Don’t hold your breath though.

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* Most publishers contract with the author to obtain the right to publish. Depending on author and agent the rights granted may be world rights or just the right to publish in USA say, or the British traditional market. The rights to sell a book (in English) into say Germany will be separate from the right to translate the book into German. The bigger the book the more detail there is likely to be about this sort of thing in the contract. Less sexy books will tend to go through on a boiler-plate contract. In other words there’s immense variation is what rights are transferred on books.

Selling of sub-rights is a ready source of income to publishers who hold them, and if a British publisher has world rights, selling (in return for a hefty lump sum up front) the US rights to another publisher may look more attractive than trying to publish the book in America yourself. The timing of the income will always be a factor: if you decide to do it yourself you have to wait till the book is written and published, rather than banking an advance next week.