Our Own Worst Electronic Enemies

When it comes to the digital future of publishing, we as publishers can be our own worst enemies.

Everyone seems to agree that electronic books will be a significant part of the world ahead. The only disagreement is how fast this new publishing environment will emerge and in what form. One of the major barriers to any form of digital publishing, however, are the permissions policies of publishers themselves.

Tens of thousands of new books are published each year that contain quoted materials from other copyrighted works. Authors and publishers typically seek permission conscientiously to include these quotations when they fall outside fair use. They write to the copyright holders (often other book publishers), and the copyright holders usually grant permission under reasonable terms regarding duration or number of impressions with a reasonable fee attached.

When it comes to requests to include copyrighted material in an electronic work, however, all bets are off. Reasonableness may be as hard to come by as a sunny January day in Chicago.

Though the number of electronic copies that are expected to be sold is typically a small fraction of the number of print copies, the copyright holder may request a fee that is substantially more than an equivalent print permission—fees so onerous as to prevent electronic publication entirely—if the copyright holder is willing to grant electronic permission at all. And such policies are in the face of what all publishers currently know—that electronic sales are still and are likely to continue to be minor in the next few years, and preparing a work for electronic publication is still quite costly and making any profit on them is very much up for grabs.

So why do copyright holders (here I have book publishers particularly in view) sometimes charge unreasonable fees or refuse permissions entirely? One word: fear. Fear that print publishing will be Napsterized. Fear that the wild west of the Internet will render copyright protection irrelevant. Fear of losing control. Fear of not being compensated adequately.

What if a publisher grants permission to use a small piece of a 100,000-word work—what is the worst case scenario? That those few words will be blasted all over cyberspace and millions of copies will be downloaded without compensation to the publisher or author? Will that make the original work any less valuable? Not a bit. Has some “just” compensation been lost? Possibly. But publishers and authors will lose even more if we all refuse to grant electronic permissions reasonably to each other. For then none of our electronic works can be published without the material excised from the work, which may result in a very unsatisfactory substitute for the original with the quotations. So all publishers are prevented from releasing electronic versions of many of our works.


Unless all publishers offer reasonable terms for electronic permissions. Then everyone benefits. Publishers aren’t unduly hampered from releasing electronic editions, and so more electronic books are sold. Authors benefit from having their books now available in electronic formats. The reading public benefits from having a greater variety of works available with different formats to choose from.

Licensing whole works or substantial portions of works for online or similar use should call for some caution since the future is unknown. (On the other hand, many publishers have released electronic and print versions simultaneously without apparent ill effect on the sales of the print version, even when the electronic version is free.) But licensing minor portions need not be highly restricted.

It’s time for publishers to stop implementing dual structures for electronic and print permissions, and start using similar systems for electronic permissions to what they are already using for print.

That’s my opinion. I’d like to hear yours.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

2 thoughts on “Our Own Worst Electronic Enemies”

  1. As a freelance permissions editor, I’ve been heavily involved in rights clearance for the past eight years. Many of my clients are in the textbook industry, although I’ve worked on several trade books as well.

    Electronic rights have caused the industry to strongly consider the implications of licensing their material for electronic use. There is a perception that electronic publications are more likely to be stolen than print publications. With print, your biggest fear was about the photocopy machine. But with electronic publications, the ability to easily (and for a time, invisibly) distribute content is vast.

    The biggest problem, though, is that so many people believe that “if it’s on the Internet, then it’s free.” The actual truth is more like, if it’s on the Internet, then its ownership must be researched and clarified. Copyright protection applies to all works of writing at the moment they are fixed (i.e., written), but initiatives like Creative Commons allow creators to opt out of some or all rights, as they choose, on a case-by-case basis. How do you know which is which? You have to do your homework.

    But the fact that so many think that “Internet” is synonymous with “FREE” has led to people poaching content by accident. They just didn’t understand copyright and fair use so they broke the rules. There are no copyright police on the Internet to protect any of us copyright holders who are victims of theft, accidental or otherwise.

    I notice that you don’t provide any specific examples of reprint fees. What do you consider “reasonable” rates? What rates have you been offered that you found “unreasonable”? What specific rights were you requesting? What was your final product?

    I would love to have some more concrete information so I can better understand your point of view.

    In my own work, the highest reprint rates are commanded by cartoons, photographs and full article reprints (especially full article reprints from ivy league journals) — whether for print or electronic reuse. My experience is that rates for print and electronic uses are similar. But most of my requests for electronic rights are for password-protected electronic products, rather than unrestricted access, so this could have something to do with the differences in our perceptions.

    Many publishers I work with are beginning to require that for any print textbook rights cleared, the equivalent electronic rights for the textbook must also be cleared *just in case* they decide to offer an electronic version of the text to the marketplace. I can’t imagine them doing this if electronic reprint fees were routinely so astronomic when compared to print fees.

    Best wishes,
    Julie Cancio Harper
    Freelance Permissions Editor

  2. Hi Julie

    You raise lots of great points. You are absolutely right about the misperception that if it’s on the web, it’s free. And that is a cause for caution on the part of publishers, which I mention.

    What are reasonable rates? Well, I avoided that intentionally because of the Robinson-Patman Act. I can’t go into numbers without potentially engaging in anticompetitive activity by suggesting all publishers adopt certain standards. So what is reasonable or not, and what standard industry practice is or isn’t can be discovered as we hear back from people requesting permissions from us and what they tell us other publishers are doing. (Customers can legally tell publishers, but publishers can’t tell other publishers.)

    I think many publishers do use reasonable rates for electronic permissions. Some don’t.


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