Are e-books sold or licensed when bought online?

Q. My publisher wants to include this sentence in my new contract: ”Sales of e-books, whether by Publisher or by a licensee, shall be considered sales by Publisher for purposes of the royalty provisions of this Agreement.” It’s not in my earlier contract. Is it okay to include?

A. While I am sympathetic to a publisher wanting to include this or similar language in new contracts and would likely recommend to a client that, as a business matter, he or she accept it, I would definitely not recommend that you or anyone else amend any previous contracts to include the provision.

But before you agree to include the requested language in your new contract, be sure the contract requires your publisher, whenever it increases its standard e-book royalty rate, to automatically increase your e-book royalty rate to that higher rate. This is important because the so-called “standard” rate that most of the major publishers are paying now is half of what most author advocates believe it should be.

The reason your publisher wants to include the new language is likely because of a September 2010 California case. In F.B.T. Productions v Aftermath Records, a federal appeals court ruled that the rap artist Eminem should have received royalties on iTunes downloads of his songs equal to 50 percent of what his music company received from iTunes rather than the far smaller “per recording” royalty payable on sales of his recordings (e.g., as CDs).

The court ruled this way on the grounds that the arrangement between his music company and iTunes was a license of the right to duplicate and distribute his songs (which it was) and that, accordingly, the subsidiary rights provisions of his contract – which provided for a 50/50 split of all licensing revenue — applied. It said that the “per copy” royalty based on the price of the song applied only when the song was sold by the publisher, not by a licensee.

Although the application of this case to any particular contract (book or music) is uncertain—much depends on the exact language in several different sections of that contract and how those provisions interrelate—the reasoning clearly applies to book publishing contracts and e-books.

Unlike print-on-paper books, e-books are not individually sold by publishers to online booksellers which in turn sell the book to their own customers. The transaction is essentially accomplished through a license between the publisher and the online seller whereby the online bookseller gets a master copy of the e-book and duplicates it for transmission to its customer. As a license by the book publisher, it should be treated the way other licenses are treated under your earlier contracts (assuming they even have the right to publish and license e-books), which is a division of the proceeds received by the publisher between author and publisher. Except for movies and foreign translations, this split is generally 50/50. Many contracts even have a clause in the subsidiary rights section, “For all other rights: 50 percent to author and 50 percent to publisher.” No wonder your publisher wants to put the clause you mention into its new contracts.

For new contracts, where you and the publisher are agreeing in advance that sales by third-parties under e-book licenses will be treated as sales of individual copies by the publisher for royalty purposes, that reflects the current commercial reality in book publishing; most authors wishing to sign with traditional publishers have little leeway here. That said, there is no reason to let the publisher off the hook on prior contracts. For one thing, there may well be a question of whether the publisher has e-book rights at all. For another, the e-book royalty offered by most major publishers today is half what author advocates believe it should be. Third, the publisher drew up the original contract and, under a general rule of contract law, ambiguities in a contract are resolved against the drafter. So don’t agree to any suggestion from your publisher to amend earlier contracts and make sure that it doesn’t sneak a clause to that effect into your new contract, amending the prior ones without you even being aware of it. You’re entitled to a 50 percent royalty on e-book contracts, and if the law will give it to you on existing contracts despite publishers’ obstinacy, you shouldn’t sign that right away.

(Interestingly, the “agency model” for e-book sales being used by Apple with major publishers could undercut this argument on sales made through Apple since that business structure treats the publisher as the seller and Apple merely as its agent. Whether a court would look through that arrangement and say that, in practice, it is nonetheless a license is a separate issue, and not for today or this column.)

(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.