Is there a standard definition of “electronic rights”?

Q. Is there a standard definition of “electronic rights”?

A. No, not for “electronic rights” nor for the many different rights encompassed in that term. (Some contracts use “multimedia rights” instead of “electronic rights,” but there is no agreement on what that term means either.)

Most electronic rights definitions used in publishers’ contracts are too vague or too broad or both. As a result, authors and agents must negotiate appropriate definitions for these subsidiary rights on a case-by-case basis.

Authors should define each electronic right they are granting narrowly and specifically. Properly done, this will enable authors to know precisely what rights they are granting to their book publishers and which they are free to license to software companies, electronics and games companies, apps and educational developers, and other non-book companies in order to exploit non-e-book electronic rights to their work.

If, despite negotiations, the contract you sign with your publisher still contains broader definitions than you’d like, be sure to add a provision that any rights not exercised by your publisher or one of its licensees (as to any language, medium, format or territory) within x years after initial publication of your manuscript (in any form) shall revert to you upon written notice to your publisher. Such a reversion clause should always be included by authors when agented rights (e.g., translations and movie rights) have been granted to the publisher. But it is particularly important when dealing with broad electronic rights clauses because no one—not the publisher, the author or the agent – can anticipate all the possible uses of rights granted in such broad clauses. As recent history suggests, many have yet to be invented.

(Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin. © Mark L. Levine)

Answers to questions on this site are general in nature only. You should consult a lawyer for information about a particular situation. For more information about book publishing contracts and issues, see Levine’s book.

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