Publishers are arguing that they own the digital (electronic) rights to creative works, despite the fact that digital editions didn’t exist when the original publishing contracts were signed. From the New York Times,
On Friday, Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, sent a letter to dozens of literary agents, writing that the company’s older agreements gave it “the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats.”
Backlist titles, which continue to be reprinted long after their initial release, are crucial to publishing houses because of their promise of lucrative revenue year after year. But authors and agents are particularly concerned that traditional publishers are not offering sufficient royalties on e-book editions, which they point out are cheaper for publishers to produce. Some are considering taking their digital rights elsewhere, which could deal a financial blow to the hobbled publishing industry.
The two biggest cases regarding this are Joeseph Heller’s Catch-22 and the works of William Styron. This sounds like flailing about to me on the part of publishers. The publishing industry doesn’t know which direction their industry is headed. So they’re trying to grab as much stuff as they can and take it with them as the market lurches in a new direction, nevermind whether they can actually carry it all or have the right to do so.