Internet Subscription Libraries for Self Published Works

New Internet ventures are offering to “lend” digital books based on subscription models that brick and mortar lending libraries in England invented in the 19th Century.  For $X dollars per time period subscribers gain access to vast collections of backlist and self-published books at less cost and with none of the complications of purchasing the physical artifacts.  Publishers Weekly recently reported on Oysterbooks.com and Scribd.com, but there are many other services in niche genres competing for subscribers.  In some manner these digital libraries will compensate exclusive licensees and copyright owners for the uploaded e-books based on the numbers of readers who access them.  There could also be a pooling model in which a percentage of the proceeds is shared among the combined number of licensors.  If published authors and their agents have not been diligent in reclaiming copyrights by giving notice under the reversion provisions of their publishing contracts, display rights are likely to be controlled through sub-licensing agreements by print publishers, who in some manner will share the proceeds with their authors, although on precisely what terms is a matter of contract.

Both backlist and self-published books are looking for new readers, but they are separated by differences. Backlist books and their authors come with a pedigree and past readers.  Self-published authors (excluding, of course, brand names publishing new works themselves) have no pedigree so their works must be taken on faith that they will satisfy readers’ expectations.  In the case of backlist books readers know they had been selected and curated by traditional publishers so their authors have a public history and this is a recommendation that self published books lack.  Just taking self published books, a number of companies are jumping into the subscription service model and offering showcase space for authors.  It may appear to be a great privilege to be invited to upload one’s literary work without having to pay and be compensated from subscriber fees.  However, it is important for self-publishing authors to understand the contractual basis for the privilege and what they may be giving up.

Digital library agreements are not all the same, and some are more fair than others in the rights they extract in exchange for the benefits they confer.  Pubslush, for example, requires authors to “grant [it] a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free sublicensable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and the business of Pubslush, and of its successors and assigns.” The rights to “reproduce and distribute” may be acceptable, but not the rights to “use”, “prepare derivative works” and “perform.”  A similar provision is contained in the allromancebooks.com agreement.  This is not to say that the benefit may not outweigh the drawbacks, but the author should click the “accept” button with eyes open.

Wattpad is satisfied with “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, display, and perform the User Submissions in connection with the Wattpad.com website and its affiliates.”  It is not clear exactly what is meant by “perform” in this and the above agreements, but the right to “perform” and “derivative” rights are two of the most valuable of the statutory basket of a copyright owner’s exclusive rights.  Lelivro doesn’t ask for either.  It requires that “[y]ou hereby grant us and our designees a worldwide, non-exclusive, sub-licensable (through multiple tiers), assignable, royalty-free (except as otherwise agreed during the online publishing process) right to use, reproduce, distribute (through multiple tiers) and publicly display such Content, solely in connection with the Site (primarily for the purpose of promoting your e-books and/or the Lelivro.com site).”

Why the fuss?  Because, although licenses of the kind demanded by Pubslush.com and romancebooks.com are qualified by the adjective “non-exclusive”, the right to prepare derivative works which are being granted gives the party creating them the right to copyright in its own name.  Without further contractual agreement that takes away the author’s right to participate in the exploitation of the work.  Screwpulp.com, despite first five letters of its name, is quite simple: “We own our stuff; you own yours.”  Writeorread.com which has not yet come on line and will be offering a reading library of self published and public domain works similarly takes nothing from the author (full disclosure, we drafted the terms of use): “The uploading of a Work to the Site does not constitute a transfer or assignment of copyright, all of which exclusive rights Writers expressly retain.”

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