The World Without Borders

October 20th, 2008 · 8 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Once upon a time, we lived in this lovely world where countries were separated by vast oceans and passports were needed to cross into new regions. Children like me imagined that countries were carefully cordoned off, fences or laser beams or something (land sharks?) protecting territorial rights. Now that I know it’s not true, I wonder how it is that we weren’t invaded by the Communists — it turns out they could have simply walked across the border and taken away our freedom.

Territorial rights are these fun, interesting things coveted and nurtured by entertainment media. In some ways, it’s easy enough to protect your exclusive right to distribute in this country or that; in others, the game is up. Get used to it. For example, you can easily limit the viewing of motion pictures in theaters to a set geographical region, but, as the Copyright Royalty Tribunal Act of 1976 recognized, media bleeds across regions. The solution then was to come up with a way to compensate rights owners for lost revenues.

It was messy at best, though some good money flowed to copyright owners as a result of this act. Of course, some good money was lost forever due to the amorphous nature of rights ownership, but that’s how the dice rolls.

In 2008, one thing is (I hope) crystal clear: the Internet is everywhere. Even the Chinese government cannot successfully stop the mighty power of people seeking information. It is no wonder that rights acquisition, even in the world of books, is becoming as broad as possible. Granted, I come from an industry where, and I paraphrase, the following is a common clause in agreements:

…all rights in all media, now known or hereafter discovered, in all territories in the Universe and other universes hereafter discovered, in perpetuity, amen.

As far as I know, book people haven’t gone that far, but it’s just a matter of time. Except, you see, some book people don’t approve of what I’m sure will be known as the Rights Grab of the Aughts (or Oughts, depending on which spelling prevails, only the future knows). In order to effectively exploit product (books are product, I know it’s painful to recognize this, but it’s true) in the modern marketplace, distributors need broad rights.

Remember: the Internet is everywhere. Just like Elvis.

An article about countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia banding together to fight against the Rights Grab reminded me of all this. On one hand, you have to agree with this assertion:

“The UK fails to grasp that the Empire is dead and that Commonwealth markets are no longer theirs by right [and] the US views Canadian rights as an automatic extension of their territory, even though they frequently have no intention of responsibly exercising those rights.”

As I know all too well, the whole issue of Canada is confusing. On one hand, they have their own currency and government. On the other, they are frequently viewed as a “domestic” territory. This leads to prefacing statements with things like, “Theoretically Canada is not part of the US…”.

I digress.

I applaud the idea of forming a consortia (love that word!) to battle the dominance of the United States and United Kingdom — not sure how UK rights translate the EU at large, but it’s a question to consider at some point — but I wonder if this is a case of focusing on the wrong problem. As Jeff Bezo noted during a chance encounter at a cocktail party (again with the paraphrasing, I should learn to carry a digital recorder at all times): “Of course we ship to Africa but it can get tricky with the delivery part.”

Governments protect rights by doing such things as reducing royalties on imported books, creating a situation that, as Andrew Wilkins of Wilkins Farago notes, “…is to the disadvantage of authors, he explained, as exported copies of books are sold at reduced royalty rates, “so in theory the author could be making three to four times more money by having a local publisher – it makes no sense.”

Except — and I’m not disparaging the right of publishers in other countries to negotiate for new books — man, that’s a lot of effort for authors and agents, all that individual negotiating, tracking of rights, chasing down statements, trying to manage releases. Yes, sometimes that can be done by your big-time publisher or, if you’re lucky, your agency has someone who specializes in this type of work.

But again, I wonder if this is a false trail, this worrying about physical distribution and higher royalties, if you’re willing to put forth the effort. While there is no doubt that the book (as we know and love it) will continue to exist for some time, it seems that the maximum energy related to rights, acquisition, distribution, and payment should be focused on the way books will be purchased and read ten or more years from now — it will take, at least, that long for any serious movement on the part of this consortia anyway; why lock in old standards when the world has already changed?

This might seem to contradict my belief that authors should hoard as many rights as possible and license them to the bidder who offers the best deal (not necessarily the highest bidder, the best deal). It does not. While the publishers want to lock in the broadest possible rights, authors should naturally be wary of this approach. This world of publishing is changing too fast, too often to chain yourself to the man.

Remember, the Internet is everywhere.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

8 responses so far ↓

  • Mike Cane // Oct 20, 2008 at 10:58 am

    >>>Remember, the Internet is everywhere.

    But English is not.

    So there will still be a need for professional translation. And even professional conglomerate publishing, until this bit is all sorted out.

    Google Translate? Think so not do I!

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 20, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Definitely not Google Translate — even my (admittedly inferior) French works better. I think you’re on to something that I hadn’t explored, however, the potential for the rising importance of non-English publishers, though will have to consider the cost of translation into my thinking.

  • Mike Cane // Oct 20, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Don’t forget the opposite: the importance of American publishers to bring international works here. Mysteries from Sweden and Japan are big. We wouldn’t know about them via the Net as they aren’t in English.

  • Virtual Memories // Oct 20, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    Boy, when I saw that headline, I thought you were going to cover the slow-motion collapse of the Borders chain. Rats.

  • Don Linn // Oct 21, 2008 at 4:31 am

    “A World Without Borders” is a scary headline for publishers first thing in the morning. Yes, it’s that kind of economy.

    Won’t someone please think of the publishers?

  • Kassia Krozser // Oct 21, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Don — my sincerest apologies! I never meant to scare you. The bookstore chain remains open for business, as close as I can tell. Based on a recent visit, there are still customers cheerfully handing over money for books, gifts, and caffeine.

  • Trendwatching 2010 | Booksquare // Nov 30, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    […] about territorial rights, particularly as they apply to ebooks, for years (last year’s A World Without Borders may have had a bit too prophetic a title). Right now, the Kindle and other devices are being rolled […]

  • Tools. Change. | Booksquare // Mar 1, 2010 at 9:07 am

    […] rights (ah, you knew I’d bring it up!) also become critical (Emily Williams and I both used the “world without borders” concept, and her piece Must Be Read). The […]