copy[1] The last few months have seen the importance of backlist e-book titles grow significantly, most notably with Philip Wylie’s abortive Amazon publishing deal that caused a 15-minute uproar in the publishing industry. Yesterday, I posted a piece about backlist e-publisher E-Reads, and in an hour I’ve got another piece about Joe Konrath’s backlist titles scheduled.

But we may not have seen anything yet. A post in E-Reads’s blog from Sunday warns about a “copyright asteroid hurtling toward earth”—the 35-year copyright termination clause embedded in 1978’s copyright law. Untouched by the Sonny Bono copyright term extension, this clause gives authors and their heirs the right to terminate their contracts starting 35 years after they were originally published. Lloyd J. Jassin has the complete legal details in the current Authors Guild magazine, or on Jassin’s blog.

This clause trumps contract law, meaning that even if the authors signed contracts granting their copyright to another agency in perpetuity, the authors and their heirs can take it back 35-40 years later. The deadline for sending termination notices on 1978 works begins to expire in 2011, meaning that it’s approaching the time when we can expect to see a lot of last-minute filings, followed by a lot of these works reverting in 2013.

Backlist e-book republishers such as E-Reads (or, for that matter, could stand to benefit considerably by these copyright reversions, and if they’re smart they’ll already be courting authors and heirs of hot 1978 literary properties, reminding them that the deadline to file is nearly upon them and wouldn’t it be nice to have those rights back so we can help you make money off of them?


  1. Imho all writer’s contracts signed before the eBook age should be deemed not to refer to ePublishing and only to paper books. The Publishers should not benefit from this financial windfall and writers should get to reallocate their rights as they see fit.

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