What should I watch out for in the “competitive books” clause?

Q. Is there anything I have to be particularly careful about in the “competitive books” clause?

A. Yes. Lots.

The most important is to make sure that the prohibition on competitive works applies only to competitive books. Otherwise, your publisher might be able to prohibit you from publishing certain magazine articles and very likely could prohibit you from licensing an “app” on the same subject to app publishers.

But the following points are important too.

  1. Narrow the section’s scope as much as possible by carefully defining what kind of book would be competitive, e.g., “a book on the same subject directed to the same audience and treated in the same manner and depth.”
  2. If the book is fiction, try to get the clause deleted altogether. Many publishers will insist on it only for nonfiction books.
  3. Add a sentence saying that books featuring the same character (in the case of fiction) and sequels are not competitive.
  4. Add a sentence saying that the prohibition will not apply to books offered to the publisher under the contract’s option clause and declined by the publisher.
  5. Try to have the section apply only for a limited number of years, e.g. three or four. This is often a way to bridge disagreements between you and the publisher about other aspects of the clause, and more publishers will agree to this limitation than one would expect.
  6. Especially if you are unable to limit the time period during which the section applies, provide that it applies only when a specified number of books have been sold within the most recent two six-month royalty reporting periods. Or only when the amount of money you received in royalties during those periods exceeds a specified amount. These numbers, whether of books sold or royalties received, should be significantly higher than those used for out-of-print determinations. There is no good reason for a publisher to insist that the low numbers in a typical contract’s out-of-print clause should prevent you from publishing another book on the same subject that could reach new readers and earn you significantly more money than you’re getting under the existing contract. The same point — setting more stringent sales criteria — should also apply to your right to license an app on the same subject as the book if the publisher refuses to limit the section’s scope to books.
  7. If you publish under more than one name, specify that only books published under the name on the book under contract are covered by the section.
  8. Provide that if the right to publish print-on-paper books reverts to you while the publisher retains e-book rights (or vice-versa), then copies published in the reverted medium will not be considered competitive under the non-compete section. This situation could occur if your contract has (as it should) separate out-of-print provisions for your e-book and print-on-paper editions. One way to phrase this point contractually might be to say “This Section [insert section number] does not apply to the exercise of any rights granted in this Agreement which revert to the Author in accordance with the provisions of this Agreement.”

(Originally published in the Fall 2011/Winter 2012 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.

What are “derivative rights”? Should I grant them to my publisher?

Q. My publisher just sent me its new contract for my next book. Among the rights I’m being asked to grant are “derivative rights” in my book. The term is not defined in the contract but my editor tells me that it is defined in the copyright law. Is that okay?

A. Definitions are a crucial part of contracts and can be negotiated like everything else. If “derivative rights” are included in the grant of rights, the term should certainly be defined. Unfortunately, the most accurate lay definition I can suggest, and one which is consistent with the copyright law, is “everything under the sun.”

I don’t recommend that any author include “derivative rights” — with or without a proper definition — in the grant of rights section, subsidiary rights section or anywhere else in a contract. It’s as bad as saying you’re granting “all rights” in your work to the publisher. That’s what Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, the authors of the unpublished play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, did in 1942 and, as a result, they were never able to write a sequel or any other work containing the characters that Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid portrayed in Casablanca (as it was retitled). If your publisher wants certain rights (derivative or not), it should specify what each one is, and provide clear definitions. You can then decide which rights to grant and, for those you do, what the appropriate royalties (if the publisher exercises the specified right directly) and subsidiary rights splits (if it intends to license them) should be. You can also decide whether you should have any approval rights for the new work and what the appropriate reversion period should be if the publisher doesn’t exercise them within an agreed-upon time.

Movie rights, dramatizations and translations are traditional examples of derivative rights and are even listed as examples in the term’s definition in the copyright law, viz. “a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a … dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version … or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.” The definition is broad enough to cover interactive video games, mobile phone “apps” and a host of other derivative works, including ones yet to be invented or even thought of. Just as parents shouldn’t send their children to camp without knowing what activities the camp provides, authors should not license their works without knowing what will happen to them when the rights leave their control.

(Originally published in the Summer 2010 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.