Negotiating book contracts with publishers on behalf of our client authors is a part of what we do. In a recent negotiation with a business book publisher, the subject of author copyright came up. By the book, copyright means “the exclusive legal right given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same.”
In this case, the contract that the publisher offered named the publishing house, not my client author, as the holder of the copyright. This isn’t an uncommon item to find in book contracts.
I went back and forth with the publisher to amend the contract to place the copyright in my client author’s name. During the negotiation, the publisher asked me why copyright in the author’s name was a big deal. After all, the publisher pointed out, regardless of who keeps the copyright, the contract still grants the publisher all the assigned rights they need to sell the book properly.
It’s a good question. Practically speaking, a signed author licenses the copyright to a publisher to such an extent that author/publisher copyright may seem like the very same thing. But it’s technically not, and as an agent, it’s always incumbent on me to make sure my client walks out of a contract negotiation in the best position possible.
Part of why I always make sure the copyright is retained under my client authors’ names is simply that an author creates the actual intellectual property of a book. It doesn’t feel like it’s right or fair to just hand the actual ownership over to someone else. Also, there are a few unscrupulous publishers out there (admittedly not the norm but it happens) who like to find a way to stop giving credit or royalties or whatever to the original creator, under the argument that “well, you signed your ownership over to us, so therefore you really have no rights.”
All this feeds into the psychology of an author wanting to maintain IP ownership, i.e., copyright. It just doesn’t feel like it makes sense to hand it over.
Furthermore, as recently as ten years ago digital book rights weren’t even mentioned in book contracts. Now many authors and publishers find that they must revisit the contract and renegotiate in order to move forward with digital platforms and reach readers. As you can imagine, authors that retained their copyright in the original contract are in a much better position to bargain digital terms with their publisher. In fact, some authors are able to break away from their publisher entirely for their digital products.
No one can predict with certainty how the publishing industry will evolve or what issues may pop up in the future. Considering how hard authors labor and toil, it only seems fair to keep their words under their own names.