Divide and conquer: The folly of territorial rights

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our newest contributor, David Grigg.  You will find David’s bio at the end of the post.  Suffice it to say that he is from Australia – my favorite country.  If I were 30 years younger I would be from there too!  PB david_grigg2 Our present world has been shaped by a series of historical accidents that became entrenched in boundaries which now make little sense. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI settled an argument between the great exploring nations of Spain and Portugal by ruling a line down the middle of the Atlantic.  All newly discovered lands to the west of this line would be owned by Spain.  Those to the east of the line could be owned by Portugal.  The native inhabitants of these places, of course, were not to get much say in this. At that time, very little of what we now know as the Americas had been discovered.  The Pope was not to know that a large part of South America bulges well to the east of his line.  But the Portugese quickly discovered that fact and planted a colony there. So it is that today the people of Brazil speak Portugese, while all the rest of South America speaks Spanish.  It's hard to imagine that situation ever changing.

Another example can be traced to the influence of old empires.  I am old enough to remember school atlases and globes with all of the countries belonging to the British Empire shown in red – the ‘Empire on which the sun never sets’.

Though the British Empire is long gone, it still has some present day form in the shape of the Commonwealth – meant to be a loose, voluntary association of states.  Australia, where I live, was part of the Empire and is now part of the Commonwealth.  But the sun, you might say, has finally set on the Empire.

Yet this relict of the past still has enormous influence in one area of modern life – copyright and publishing.  Here the boundaries seem set as eternally as those of the language zones of South America, and as arbitrary as the Pope’s line down the middle of the sea.

When an author sells a book to a publisher, he or she signs a contract assigning the publisher copyright – literally the right to copy the work.  Though that right is generally as broad as the publisher can get away with, it is spelled out to cover particular geographic areas of the world.  And this is where those relict boundaries are still in place – the British Empire still lives!

I?m certainly speaking generally, and I know there are exceptions such as Canada, but as a consumer the way I understand it is that a British or Commonwealth publisher has the right to copy and sell a book anywhere within the old Empire?s boundaries. A U.S. publisher will be able to sell a book almost anywhere except within those boundaries. Between them, they divide up the English-language speaking world rather in the same way as the Pope divided up the world between the Spanish and the Portugese.

But in today’s ‘flattened’ world of the Internet and the availability of digital works such as audiobooks and e-books, these boundaries no longer make any sense, and in fact result in many absurd situations.

Here’s an example.

Let’s take Michael Connelly’s first novel about Harry Bosch, “Black Echo”.   The U.K. publisher of the paperback is Orion Publishing Group, the hardback Headline Book Publishing.

The U.S. paperback publisher is Grand Central Publishing, the hardback Little, Brown and Company.

So, living in Australia, I can only get to buy one of the U.K. editions, unless I use the Internet to buy a U.S. edition from Amazon. This is frowned on by the British publishing companies, and by the Australian authorities in charge of intellectual property, but it?s not actually forbidden. If the U.K. edition is out of print, then the Australian authorities do allow me to ask my bookseller to import the U.S. edition, thanks to some recent relaxations due to our consumer affairs authority.

There’s also an e-book version of “Black Echo”, available from sources such as Fictionwise and Books on Board.

But wait!! Can I buy the e-book?  No, because apparently it’s based on the U.S. edition, and can’t be sold to me, who lives in the old British Empire.  Is there a British e-book edition available?  Not that I can find.  Does this mean that I am allowed to buy the only e-book edition available to me?  Not on your life.  I’m in the British Empire and so I get to buy – nothing.

It’s the same with the audiobook version.  There’s no UK version of this available on-line, but I am forbidden to buy the audiobook of “Black Echo” from Audible.  I live in the wrong place.

Now this isn’t the fault of Fictionwise or Books on Board or Audible.  It’s dictated to them by the publishers.  Their contracts were drawn up based on those old relict boundaries and that’s the way they are going to stay.

“Black Echo” is just one example, of course – these restrictions apply to literally thousands of books.

Now in whose interest is this silly situation?  It’s in no-one’s interest.

I am not wanting to do something illegal.  I want to make a perfectly legal purchase of an item on the Internet.  I want to give the publisher (and hence the author) real, actual, genuine cash.  Can I get the e-book any other way?  No.  So the old relict boundaries are preventing me from giving the author my money.  What the…?

And the book publishing world is of course itself only one example.  Don’t get me started on other examples such as the nonsense of DVD region encoding, intended to prevent movies from being viewed in regions of the world not desired (or at a time not desired) by the big studios.  A silly restriction, blown apart among other reasons by the incredibly stupid decision someone made to put Hong Kong and China into different regions, and a huge incentive to piracy.

These kind of restrictions, in fact, do just create incentives for people to find ways around them, and thus almost certainly ending up meaning that the original creator gets nothing.

If the world really is becoming flat, if this is the era of globalization, these boundaries have to be broken up, history or not.


David R. Grigg is a software developer who lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Now 58 years old, he has worked in the field of interactive multimedia for over two decades, and owns a part interest in Kaleidio Pty Ltd, which specialises in creating interactive theaters and exhibits.

He has also worked in public relations and as a journalist and sub-editor.

During the 1970s and 1980s, David was deeply involved in the science fiction fan community, publishing fanzines and helping organize SF conventions, eventually becoming Chairman of the 43rd World SF Convention held in Melbourne in 1985.

He is also the author of a number of professionally published short stories and two short fantasy novels for teens, “Halfway House” and “Shadows”.  He has now released these as free e-books through Feedbooks.

As a software developer, he has produced several shareware programs for iPod owners related to audiobook creation and conversion, and runs his own web site at http://rightwordsoft.com, where he also now writes regularly for his blog “Megatheriums for Breakfast”.

He owns several Apple iPods, and has become passionate about the iPhone/iPod Touch as a platform for reading e-books.

David is married, with one adult daughter.

4 Comments on Divide and conquer: The folly of territorial rights

  1. ….crickets.

  2. I certainly can’t find fault with your complaint. It’s just shame you (or, for that matter, I or anyone else) don’t have a solution that will create the One Global Economy that is lacking from the whole One Global Internet concept.

    Until we have that, we will also continue to see markets whose economies are so unbalanced compared to ours, that a single paperback book would cost them a months’ salary, and is therefore out of their reach. It is this unbalance that creates “territorial rights” by necessity, so it is this unbalance that needs to be addressed.

  3. Kimberly Bailey // May 8, 2009 at 10:26 am //

    “Now this isn’t the fault of Fictionwise or Books on Board or Audible. It’s dictated to them by the publishers. Their contracts were drawn up based on those old relict boundaries and that’s the way they are going to stay.”

    Those contract terms are dictated by authors and agents. Publishers can only buy the territories authors and agents are willing to sell. The more rights authors/agents can carve up (territory/format/etc) the more deals they can do and the more money they get.

  4. I stumbled across this post while trying to get my head around territorial rights for ebooks. But in terms of print books, this:

    If the U.K. edition is out of print, then the Australian authorities do allow me to ask my bookseller to import the U.S. edition, thanks to some recent relaxations due to our consumer affairs authority.

    doesn’t sound right. My understanding is that customers can request a special order for any book outside the US and booksellers can import that book.

    What I don’t get is that, given this exception in the parallel importation restrictions, why can’t we do the same for ebooks? Is it because the law considers print, audio and ebooks the *same* book?

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