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Random House asserts ownership of e-rights to old titles

As the Kindle, the Nook, and the Sony Reader gain traction with consumers, one publisher is rushing to ensure that it retains the electronic rights to all of its backlist titles, even if the contracts for those titles were written before e-readers existed.

In a front-page article in yesterday’s New York Times, Motoko Rich reported that Random House sent a letter to literary agents last Friday claiming “that the company’s older agreements gave it ‘the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats.’ The Bookseller points out that the letter, signed by Random House chief executive Markus Dohle, is already provoking controversy:

Nat Sobel, a literary agent whose clients include James Ellroy and Richard Russo, both of whom are published by Random House’s Alfred Knopf imprint, disagreed with Dohle’s assertions. “I don’t accept Random House’s position, and I don’t think anybody else will either,” Sobel said. “You are entitled to the rights stated in your contract. And contracts 20 years ago didn’t cover electronic rights. And the courts have already agreed with this position.”

According to Rich, the estate of William Styron entered into an agreement this fall with a company called Open Road Integrated Media to produce electronic versions of Styron’s books, which include the classic novels Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. But if Dohle gets his way, those proposed Open Road titles will be rendered illegitimate:

In his letter on Friday, Mr. Dohle said that authors were precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties. Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said the company expected to continue to publish the Styron books we own in all formats, including e-books.

[Jeffrey] Sharp, president of Open Road, said in an e-mailed statement: We are confident in our agreements and only make deals with parties who represent to us that they own the rights.