For the last 18 months we’ve been working hard on research analysing reversion clauses in publishing contracts. That research has now been accepted for publication and will soon appear in the Melbourne University Law Review. In the meantime though, it is freely available to download here!

This work demonstrates that book publishing contracts are simply not adequate to protect author rights or make full use of the potential of books. Here are some of our key findings:

  • Publishing contracts lasted for a long time – 83% took rights for at least the whole term of copyright, which today in Australia and the UK is the author’s life plus seventy years! They were broad, too, covering a wide range of exclusive rights.

Chart 1

  • That breadth makes reversion rights really important. But we identified real deficiencies in the way those rights were drafted.
  • Most contracts didn’t have out-of-print clauses with clear, objective thresholds for determining when a book was out of print (like a minimum number of sales). 88% used some sort of vague ‘availability’ standard, like ‘out of print’ or ‘out of print and not available in any edition’.

Chart 2

  • Authors faced a long time before they could get their rights in out-of-print books back – sometimes up to seven years after the book was first published.
  • Contracts were riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies. Some were silent on even really basic terms, like how long the contract lasts for.
  • Few contracts (6%) provided for unused rights (over eg, languages or territories) to be returned to authors.

Appropriately tailored reversion rights are extremely important to enabling authors to take advantage of alternative opportunities in cases where their publisher isn’t exploiting rights or their books are no longer really selling. The European Union having recently made it mandatory for its member states to grant creators reversion rights in the case of non-exploitation by publishers. Many countries already have such rights. But in English-language countries like Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Canada, we leave it all (or almost all) to the contracts. But as our research has shown, they simply don’t do a good enough job for us to leave author rights solely up to them.

If you’re interested in helping achieve better rights for authors, help spread the word by sharing this post and checking out the research.



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