The story of Harper Lee and the controversy surrounding her sequel to the literary classic: “To Kill a Mocking Bird” had authors talking yet again about how the industry is on a mission to rip them off. In fact, things have gotten so bad in the publishing industry that the Author’s Guild has started a campaign for what they’re calling a fair contract initiative which they hope will help authors achieve a fair and balanced return for their work.
Even though I’m not a big fan of the Authors Guild, I do believe this is a worthy cause. So in today’s post, I’m going to lay out several examples of authors signing unfair contracts as well as authors getting their rights stolen from them.
Before I go further, let me explain the types of licensing rights authors usually exploit:
1. Print (paperback, large print, hardback, etc)
2. Digital (ebooks, apps, video games, etc.)
8. Franchise: (allowing other writers to use characters from your books)
The list does go on, but these are the more common rights that authors sell. In the case of a traditional publisher, they are generally given the right to publish a book in print, ebook or audio form however, they do not own the copyright to your book. You are just giving them permission (license) to publish and distribute your work. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately over the years, publishing contracts have gotten more and more one-sided. In fact, most contracts from major publishing companies do take an author’s copyright. And if you think having an agent is going to save you, think again because some literary agents are encouraging their clients to sign on the dotted line because after all, “a bad deal is better than no deal.” Yes, this was actually said by a well-known literary agent. Let’s find out why this is a bad idea…
Most experienced publishing professionals will tell you that you should never EVER sign over all your licensing rights. However, this is exactly what the creators of Superman did in 1938, when they sold the rights to their company (which created the comic character) for only $150. They also had some sort of a work for hire deal with DC Comics that got complicated later on. As we all know, the comic book character went on to become a global multi-billion dollar phenomenon but the creators only got a tiny fraction of what DC Comics got. To add insult to injury, the creators had to sue on multiple occasions just to get access to royalties due them. The latest lawsuit occurred in 2008, when Jerry Siegel’s estate sued over the Superboy character.
Back to the Harper Lee Story…
Let’s not forget the case of Harper Lee, who was duped into signing over her copyright to a former agent. For those who don’t know, Ms. Lee was living in a nursing home and had been nearly blind and deaf for years. However, that didn’t stop her agent who went over to the nursing home and got her to sign a contract giving him all the rights to her book! P.S. a judge later declared the contract was null and void then ordered the agent to give back the money he took.
That explains the outcry when it was announced that there would be a sequel to her bestseller. Many believed she was being taken advantage of yet again, while Harper Lee herself publicly denied being duped into anything. Later an investigation was launched by authorities which found no signs of fraud.
Taking Rights Not Yet Invented
In 2009, Random House sent a letter to several authors when they noticed them selling the digital rights of their books to other companies. They were told in a memo they were in violation of their contract. Now keep in mind, some of these contracts were 20+ years old, and ebooks as we know them, didn’t exist back then. Later on, a tiny clause was found in some contracts that specified RH could publish manuscripts in book form. Agents and authors cried foul but RH stood by its reasoning and proceeded to take several companies to court.
So how do you keep yourself out this kind of legal nightmare? That’s easy, you educated yourself. There are several websites and books that can help authors decipher contracts, here are a few resources to look at:
Free Online Info:
- Author’s Alliance Library Resource
- Copyright Made Easy (Udemy)
- MIT OpenCourseware (Youtube Video Lectures)
P.S. I’m not affiliate with any of the products or services mentioned.
As you can see, there was never a golden era in publishing, where authors were protected. Things have always been tough in this business. And today, the industry as we know it is fading away which is causing desperation amongst authors and publishers. The only way to protect ourselves from exploitation is to educate ourselves. It’s hard to con an author who knows their legal rights and an educated author is what the industry fears most.