Jean Craighead George

A recent lawsuit brought before the U.S. District Court in New York offers readers a glimpse into a battle raging behind the scenes in traditional publishing. The dispute, between authors and publishers, has been going on for several years and there are times it affects which titles you’re able to get as e-books.

Much of the e-book market is for new titles, but by no means all.

In a significant ruling regarding backlist e-book rights, a New York court this week held that e-book publisher Open Road infringed HarperCollins' copyright with its e-book edition of Jean Craighead George's 1973 bestselling children's book Julie of the Wolves.

"Having accordingly relied on the words of the contract, this Court holds that, by its language, the contract grants to HarperCollins the exclusive right to license electronic publications.

When the former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman cofounded Open Road Media in 2009, the publisher was one of the first of its kind: The idea was that it would mine the backlist for books that had never been available as ebooks, snap up the digital rights and publish the ebooks for the first time, thus introducing authors like William Styron and Alice Walker to new audiences.

Nearly four years and 3,000 titles later (with an additional 1,000 titles under contract), the company is still focused around acquiring and marketing backlist titles.

The lawsuit over the ebook rights to Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves is moving forward in court, with Open Road Media and HarperCollins filing motions on March 18. HarperCollins filed its lawsuit against Open Road in December 2011.

In the case, HarperCollins says that its 1971 contract with George gives it the right to publish Julie of the Wolves in any format, including as an ebook. Open Road argues that HarperCollins never had ebook rights. George, who was 92 when HarperCollins first filed its lawsuit…

As sales of electronic books and readers skyrocket, the threat of piracy and other copyright issues loom. Publishers are test-driving different litigation strategies to fight illegal downloads. They are also arguing in court that author contracts, some decades old, give them the exclusive rights to publish e-books. In 2007, there were 147,000 e-reader sales, compared with an estimated 18.7 million in 2011 and a projected 23 million this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The Association of American Publishers' data show that e-books' share of the so-called trade market, which includes fiction, nonfiction, and religious books for adults

Open Road Media responded today to the lawsuit that HarperCollins filed against it in December over the digital rights to Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, saying HarperCollins’ claim “is nothing but an attempt to seize rights that were never granted to it and to change the existing law with respect to e-book rights.” George herself says she is “with Open Road all the way.” In the complaint it filed in December, HarperCollins said its contract with George, signed in 1971, gives it the right to publish Julie of the Wolves in any format.

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