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Sunday, 22 July, 2001, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Electronic books face copyright battle
Rosetta books
Real books are under threat from virtual rivals
By BBC News Online's North America Business Reporter, David Schepp

Call it a modern day battle between diminutive David and giant Goliath.

Traditional book publishers are taking on upstart electronic publishers for the rights to the contents of books - both old and new.

The latest involves Random House, the world's largest English-language general book publisher, and RosettaBooks, a small electronic publisher, seeking to secure its place as the electronic-book (e-book) distributor.

The conflict is over who has the electronic-distribution rights to authors' manuscripts. Major publishers, such as Random House, believe previous book publication entitles them to the rights to publish electronic media as well.

Court case

But RosettaBooks believes otherwise, and a US District Court judge agreed with them last week, in a strongly worded opinion.

The judge said the right of ownership to electronic manuscripts belongs to authors - not publishers - a decision that does not sit well with publishing powerhouses such as Random House, and it has vowed to appeal the District Court decision.

Rosetta books
At the heart of the matter is whether electronic distribution truly represents a new technology that should be governed by separate agreements.

RosettaBooks contends that e-books are a different, digital medium for delivering what has traditionally been ink on paper and as such have the right to be distributed separately.

Not surprisingly, traditional publishers believe otherwise, that words are words regardless of how they are "published".

Gutenberg's press

The bound book as it is known today is largely the product of 550-year-old technology developed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1452 known as the moveable type.

The printing press, as it came to be known, utilised the technologies of paper, oil-based ink and the wine-press to print books. Technological advances over the centuries have refined the process but the concept remains for the most part the same.

Electronic-media distribution, however, represents a major sea change, says RosettaBooks founder and chief executive Arthur Klebanoff.

It is a sea change, Mr Klebanoff told the BBC, not being driven by today's traditional publishing houses. "Rather it's in the hands of electronic companies, whose budgets and size dwarf physical publishers."

Mr Klebanoff says those resources create a willingness to take risks with consumers with fast-moving technologies that traditional publishers are not willing to take.

The players

RosettaBooks involves itself only in the distribution aspect of e-books, leaving the application - how the print appears on screens - to such well-known tech firms as Microsoft, Compaq and Palm.

E-book distribution is in its infancy. But that is set to change as products from these companies and others become ready-equipped with software that allows for easy viewing on computers and handheld devices.

For example, Palm, the manufacturer of the most popular personal digital assistant (PDA) in the US, will by year's end preload the necessary software to download and read e-books on the majority of its Palm devices.

E-books have some advantages over traditional books, including the ability to hold 30 to 40 titles now (more in the future) and search for the meaning of word with an onboard dictionary, as well as being backlit for easy reading in a darkened room.

Comparisons with Napster

This latest row over copyrights has not surprisingly caused some to draw parallels between RosettaBooks and online music distributor Napster.

Mr Klebanoff begs off any comparisons to the music-swapping internet site that only recently came back online after a US District Court judge shut it down for copyright infringement.

"We're the opposite of Napster", he says, adding that Napster went forward with its scheme without copyright agreements with their holders.

This resulted in Napster being sued not only by distributors - in this case record companies - but also artists.

In contrast, RosettaBooks has agreements with authors for every title it publishes electronically.

Technology for distribution

Mr Klebanoff contends that traditional publishers have nothing to fear from his company. "The e-book is truly not an either/or proposition," he says, "particularly with previously published works."

A case in point, he says, is RosettaBooks recent promotion of the literary classic "Brave New World", which effectively served as an advertisement for the print version as well.

A recent increase in royalty flows for the Aldous Huxley classic is believed to be directly related to RosettaBooks' marketing of it.

Another example, Mr Klebanoff says, is George Orwell's classic "1984". In electronic format it is now read around the world, bringing it to another generation of readers.

RosettaBooks' electronic distribution of such classics, Mr Klebanoff believes, is complimentary to the efforts of traditional publishers.

"Will [Orwell] still be read in print?" Mr Klebanoff asks. "Answer: Yes."

See also:

19 Jul 01 | New Media
Napster can go back online
02 Jun 01 | Business
Vivendi buys US education publisher
20 Jul 01 | Business
Web publishers charge for content
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