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Goodbye territorial rights?

THE copyright implications of e-book readers such as Amazon's Kindle and its equivalents are still sinking in. E-book readers allow readers to read electronic versions of books on the move in much the same way as old-school books on paper, once they've paid to download a title.

In February 2009, Amazon disabled the "text to speech"  (TTS) feature that came with the US version of its e-book reader, after action by US writers' union the Author's Guild, who contested that it effectively created the work in a new medium, the rights to which had not yet been negotiated with the creator, and would undermine the rights of authors to earn income from licensing audio book version of their work (and of our colleagues in actors' unions to earn a living recording audio books.) Several publishers have since then employed a "TTS kill switch"  on e-books they have produced for Kindle.

There are now UK versions of Kindle, and of other similar devices. Previously manufacturers have issued different versions of their e-book readers for different territories (countries), with the terms and conditions and licensing for e-books to download for the readers on default settings that reflected the copyright laws and contracts of that country.

Things got more complicated with the arrival in October of Amazon's $279 "overseas" version of Kindle, released in 100 countries. How will the integrity of territorial rights (copyright specific to a particular country) now be maintained? Publishers - and authors - used to earn money through royalties - selling books in the domestic market, licensing editions in other English-speaking markets, and then selling translation rights outside the English speaking world too.

Now the international market seems to be turning into an "open market" through overseas versions of e-book readers. Publishers could lose control of how they release and price their books in overseas territories. Amazon says its software will detect from which territory a user is requesting a download, and send only the edition licensed for that territory. But can we be sure that Amazon will be able to update an increasingly complicated database of different territorial rights for 200-odd countries, and pass on to authors the royalties involved?

International e-book readers may greatly increase the value of book rights. But they risk encouraging the depressing practice of publishers demanding that authors give away all their rights.

E-book publishing may, paradoxically, offer hope that authors may regain control of their work. It's much easier for authors to self-publish e-books, potentially without having to go through a publisher  and surrender all rights to them. The speakers from September's Branch meeting on getting your book published felt e-books might eventually fill the niche once held by the dying breed of author-friendly independent publishers.

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