This article is not intended to, and does not constitute, legal advice with respect to your particular situation and fact pattern. Do secure counsel promptly, if you see any legal issue looming on the horizon which may affect your career or your rights. What applies in one context, may not apply to the next one. Make sure that you seek individualized legal advice as to any important matter pertaining to your career or your rights generally.
The following publishing industry article addresses some of the legal issues arising for publishing lawyers, entertainment attorneys, authors, and others as a result of the prevalence of e-mail, the Internet, and so-called “digital” and “electronic publishing”. As usual, publishing law generally and the law of the digital right and electronic right specifically, governing these commercial activities, has been slow to catch up to the activity itself. Yet most of the publishing industry “gray areas” can be resolved by imposing old common-sense interpretations upon new publishing lawyer and entertainment lawyer industry constructs, including the digital right and electronic right, and others. And if after reviewing this article you believe you have a non-jargonized handle on the distinction between “digital right” and “electronic right” in the publishing context, then I look forward to hearing from you and reading your article, too.
1. “Electronic Right[s]” And “Digital Right[s]” Are Not Self-Defining.
All publishing lawyers, entertainment attorneys, authors, and others must be very careful about the use of jargon - publishing industry jargon, or otherwise. Electronic and digital publishing is a recent phenomenon. Although as a publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney and unlike some others, I tend to use the phrase “electronic right” or even “digital right” in the singular number, there probably tends to be no single consensus as to what constitutes and collectively comprises the singular “electronic right” or “digital right”. There has not been sufficient time for the publishing, media, or entertainment industries to fully crystallize accurate and complete definitions of phrases like “electronic publishing”, “web publishing”, “electronic right[s]”, “e-rights”, “digital rights”, or “first electronic rights”.
These phrases are therefore usually just assumed or, worse yet, just plain fudged. Anyone who suggests that these phrases alone are already self-defining, would be wrong.
Accordingly, anyone, including a publishing lawyer or paralegal representing a book publisher or entertainment lawyer representing a studio or producer, who says that an author should do - or not do – something in the realm of the “electronic right” or “digital right” because it is “industry-standard”, should automatically be treated with suspicion and skepticism.
The fact of the matter is, this is a great era for authors as well as author-side publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, and they should seize the moment. The fact that “industry-standard” definitions of the electronic right and digital right have yet to fully crystallize, (if indeed they ever do), means that authors and author-side publishing and copyright lawyers and entertainment attorneys can take advantage of this moment in history.
Of course, authors can also be taken advantage of, too – particularly those not represented by a publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney. There is a long and unfortunate history of that happening, well prior to the advent of the electronic right and digital right. It has probably happened since the days of the Gutenberg Press.
Every author should be represented by a publishing lawyer, entertainment attorney, or other counsel before signing any publishing or other agreement, provided that their own economic resources will allow it. (But I am admittedly biased in that regard). Part of the publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney’s function in representing the author, is to tease apart the different strands that collectively comprise the electronic right or digital right. This must be done with updated reference to current technology. If your advisor on this point is instead a family member with a Smith-Corona cartridge typewriter or a Commodore PET, rather than an entertainment attorney or publishing lawyer, then it may be time to seek a new advisor.
Even authors who cannot afford publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney counsel, however, should avoid agreeing in writing to give broad contractual grants to publishers of “electronic publishing” - or the “electronic right”, or “electronic rights” or “digital rights”, or the “digital right”. Rather, in the words of “Tears For Fears”, the author and author counsel had “better break it down again”. Before agreeing to grant anyone the author’s “digital right: or “electronic right”, or any elements thereof, the author and his or her publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney need to make a list of all the possible and manifold electronic ways that the written work could be disseminated, exploited, or digitally or electronically otherwise used. Notice that the author’s list will likely vary, month to month, given the fast pace of technological advancements. For example, these kinds of questions can be considered by the author and publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney alike:
Electronic Digital Right Question #1, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Can the work be published in whole or in part on the Internet? In the context of an “e-zine”? Otherwise? If so, how? For what purpose? Free to the reader? For a charge to the reader?
Electronic Digital Right Question #2, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Can the work be disseminated through private e-mail lists or “listservs”? Free to the reader? For a charge to the reader?
Electronic Digital Right Question #3, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Can the work be distributed on CD-Rom? By whom? In what manner and context?
Electronic Digital Right Question #4, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: To what extent does the author, himself or herself, wish to self-publish this work, either before or after granting any electronic right or any individual “electronic publishing” rights therein to someone else? Will such self-publication occur on or through the author’s website? Otherwise?
Electronic Digital Right Question #5, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Even if the author does not self-publish, to what extent does the author wish to be able to use and disseminate this writing for his or her own portfolio, publicity, or self-marketing purposes, and perhaps disseminate that same writing (or excerpts thereof) electronically? Should that be deemed invasive of, or competitive with, the electronic right as otherwise contractually and collectively constituted?
The above list is illustrative but not exhaustive. Any author and any publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney will likely think of other elements of the electronic and digital right and other uses as well. The number of possible uses and complexities of the electronic right[s] and digital right[s] definitions will increase as technology advances. In addition, different authors will have different responses to the publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney, to each of the carefully-itemized questions. Moreover, the same author may be concerned with the electronic right in the context of one of his/her works, but may not care so much in the context of a second and different work not as susceptible to digital right exploitation. Therefore, the author must self-examine on these types of electronic and digital right questions before responding to the author’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney and then entering into each individual deal. Only by doing so can the author avoid the pitfalls and perils of relying upon lingo, and relying upon someone else to dictate to them what is the electronic right or digital right “industry standard”. As the publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney should opine, “There is no such thing as ‘industry standard’ in the context of a bilaterally-negotiated contract. The only standard that you the author should be worried about is the motivational ‘standard’ known as: ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’”.
Finally, the author should be aware that while the electronic right, digital right, and components thereof can be expressly granted, they can also be expressly reserved to the author, by a mere stroke of the pen or keystroke made by the publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney. For example, if an author wants to expressly reserve the “portfolio uses” mentioned in Electronic Digital Right Question #5 above, then the author should ask his or her publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney to clearly recite this reservation of the author portfolio electronic/digital right in the contract, and leave nothing to chance. In addition, if the author has some negotiating leverage, the author, through the publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney, may be able to negotiate the “safety net” of a “savings clause” which provides words to the effect that: “all rights not expressly granted to publisher, be it an electronic right or digital right or otherwise, are specifically reserved to author for his/her sole use and benefit”. That way, the “default provision” of the contract may automatically capture un-granted rights including any electronic or digital right for the author’s later use. This publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney drafting technique has likely saved empires in the past.
2. Publishers and Entertainment Companies Are Revising Their Boilerplate Agreements, As We Speak, In An Effort To Secure The Electronic Right[s].
It is well-known and should come as no surprise that right now, as we speak, publishers and their in-house and outside counsel publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys are furiously re-drafting their boilerplate contracts to more thoroughly capture the digital and electronic right – that is, all of an author’s digital and electronic rights. The typical publishing agreement drafted by a company-side publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney will recite a broad grant of rights, then followed by a whole laundry-list of “including but not limited to” examples. If the author receives such an onerous-looking rights passage from a publisher or the publisher’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney, the author should not be intimidated. Rather, the author should look at it as an opportunity to make some money and have some fun. The author can first compare the list suggested in Electronic Digital Right Questions #1 through #5 above, to the publisher’s own laundry-list and the author’s own imagination. Then, the author can decide which if any of the separate digital or electronic rights the author wants to fight to keep for himself or herself.
If the publisher tells the author to blindly subscribe to their entire digital or electronic right[s] clause (or clauses), then the author still has the ultimate leverage, which is to walk away from the proposed deal prior to signature. Of course, this strategic approach wouldn’t be advisable in most cases - unless perhaps if the author has other written offers from other publishers already on the table. However, an author shouldn’t be forced by any publisher or any company-side publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney to sign away the electronic right, digital right, or any other rights that the author would rather keep - particularly rights which the author never specifically intended to shop to the publisher in the first instance.
The author should keep in mind the psychology and motivations of the publishers and their publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney counsel when doing all of this. A Vice-President (or above) at the publishing company probably woke up one recent morning, and realized that his/her company lost a great deal of money on a particular project by not taking a prospective license or assignment of an electronic right or digital right from another author. The VP probably then blamed the company’s in-house legal department publishing lawyers or entertainment attorneys, who in turn started frantically re-drafting the company boilerplate to assuage the angry publishing executive and thereby keep their jobs. When in-house publishing lawyers, entertainment attorneys, or others engage in this type of practice (some may call it “drafting from fear”), they tend to go overboard.
Accordingly, what you will probably see is a proverbial “kitchen sink” electronic right clause which has been newly-drafted and perhaps even insufficiently reviewed by the company-side publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, internally and themselves - wherein the publisher will ask the author for every possible electronic and digital right and every other thing, including (without limitation) the kitchen sink. The only response to such a broad-band electronic right or digital right clause is a careful, deliberate, and methodical reply. Using the approach outlined in Section #1 above, the author and the author’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney counsel must separately tease apart each use and component of the electronic right and digital right that the publisher’s broad-band clause might otherwise capture, and then opine to the publisher a “yes” or a “no” on each line-item. In other words, the author, through his or her publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney, should exercise his or her line-item veto. It’s the author’s writing that we are talking about, after all. The author should be the one to convert the singular “electronic right” or “digital right” into the laundry-list of electronic rights. That’s why I use the singular number when referring to “electronic right” or “digital right” – I like to let the technologically-advanced author have all the fun making the list. That way, too, the author can tell me what he or she thinks the phrases actually mean, and what the difference between the two meanings really is, if anything.
The next installment of this article, Part II, will - believe it or not - have a few words in defense of the publishers and the publishing lawyers that work for them!
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My law practice as a publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney includes the drafting, editing, negotiation, and closure of agreements including digital and electronic rights matters as they may arise therein, as well as in the fields of music, film, television, Internet, and other media and art forms. If you have questions about legal issues which affect your career, and require representation, please contact me: