Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who Gives Permission -- the Publisher or the Author?

Dear Rich: I work for a small non-profit with offices in the UK and California. Our mission concerns the protection of both biological and cultural diversity. In an effort to fulfill this mission, our group created a community study program that includes a reader featuring works written by leading ecological scholars and activists. We're updating the curriculum and most of the authors have agreed enthusiastically to let us use their material for free. However, a few of them do not hold rights to their work and the publishers are asking for fees that are prohibitive. We're trying to find substitutes. Do we need to get both the authors' and the publishers' permission if the books attribute copyright only to the authors?The short answer is that the copyright owner is usually -- but not always -- the person to give permission. The reason we need to provide a longer answer is that often the author retains copyright ownership but grants exclusive rights to a publisher. So even though the book's title page says Copyright 2009 Dear Rich, the publisher still controls all rights and can even file an application for copyright registration as the owner of those exclusive rights.
How can you tell who owns what? Usually, you need to ask the publisher. As a very general rule, authors of articles in scholarly journals and other periodical publications traditionally retain subsequent print publication rights. Also, as a general rule, most authors of books do not control the right to copy portions of their published books since print reproduction rights is one of the exclusive rights universally granted to book publishers. (Note, in the event that the publisher stops selling the book, these rights commonly revert to the author -- or at least they used to in the old days of publishing ...). So even though the author may be enthusiastic about including the work (and may be listed as copyright owner), the publisher may be the one who has to okay the use.
We support your work and wish publishers would support it too (instead of making you beg like Oliver Twist). If the Dear Rich Staff  made more money we would shovel it towards our favorite conservation nonprofit located in the nearby (and beautifully named) town of Petaluma.