The following publishing industry article addresses some of the legal issues arising for publishing lawyers, entertainment attorneys, authors, and others as a result of the prevalence of e-mail, the Internet, and so-called “digital” and “electronic publishing”. As usual, publishing law generally and the law of the digital right and electronic right specifically, governing these commercial activities, has been slow to catch up to the activity itself. Yet most of the publishing industry “gray areas” can be resolved by imposing old common-sense interpretations upon new publishing lawyer and entertainment lawyer industry constructs, including the digital right and electronic right, and others. And if after reviewing this article you believe you have a non-jargonized handle on the distinction between “digital right” and “electronic right” in the publishing context, then I look forward to hearing from you and reading your article, too.

1. “Electronic Right[s]” And “Digital Right[s]” Are Not Self-Defining.

All publishing lawyers, entertainment attorneys, authors, and others must be very careful about the use of jargon – publishing industry jargon, or otherwise. Electronic and digital publishing is a recent phenomenon. Although as a publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney and unlike some others, I tend to use the phrase “electronic right” or even “digital right” in the singular number, there probably tends to be no single consensus as to what constitutes and collectively comprises the singular “electronic right” or “digital right”. There has not been sufficient time for the publishing, media, or entertainment industries to fully crystallize accurate and complete definitions of phrases like “electronic publishing”, “web publishing”, “electronic right[s]”, “e-rights”, “digital rights”, or “first electronic rights”.

These phrases are therefore usually just assumed or, worse yet, just plain fudged. Anyone who suggests that these phrases alone are already self-defining, would be wrong.

Accordingly, anyone, including a publishing lawyer or paralegal representing a book publisher or entertainment lawyer representing a studio or producer, who says that an author should do – or not do – something in the realm of the “electronic right” or “digital right” because it is “industry-standard”, should automatically be treated with suspicion and skepticism.

The fact of the matter is, this is a great era for authors as well as author-side publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, and they should seize the moment. The fact that “industry-standard” definitions of the electronic right and digital right have yet to fully crystallize, (if indeed they ever do), means that authors and author-side publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys can take advantage of this moment in history.

Of course, authors can also be taken advantage of, too – particularly those not represented by a publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney. There is a long and unfortunate history of that happening, well prior to the advent of the electronic right and digital right. It has probably happened since the days of the Gutenberg Press.

Every author should be represented by a publishing lawyer, entertainment attorney, or other counsel before signing any publishing or other agreement, provided that their own economic resources will allow it. (But I am admittedly biased in that regard). Part of the publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney’s function in representing the author, is to tease apart the different strands that collectively comprise the electronic right or digital right. This must be done with updated reference to current technology. If your advisor on this point is instead a family member with a Smith-Corona cartridge typewriter or a Commodore PET, rather than an entertainment attorney or publishing lawyer, then it may be time to seek a new advisor.

Even authors who cannot afford publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney counsel, however, should avoid agreeing in writing to give broad contractual grants to publishers of “electronic publishing” – or the “electronic right”, or “electronic rights” or “digital rights”, or the “digital right”. Rather, in the words of “Tears For Fears”, the author and author counsel had “better break it down again”. Before agreeing to grant anyone the author’s “digital right: or “electronic right”, or any elements thereof, the author and his or her publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney need to make a list of all the possible and manifold electronic ways that the written work could be disseminated, exploited, or digitally or electronically otherwise used. Notice that the author’s list will likely vary, month to month, given the fast pace of technological advancements. For example, these kinds of questions can be considered by the author and publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney alike:

Electronic Digital Right Question #1, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Can the work be published in whole or in part on the Internet? In the context of an “e-zine”? Otherwise? If so, how? For what purpose? Free to the reader? For a charge to the reader?

Electronic Digital Right Question #2, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Can the work be disseminated through private e-mail lists or “listservs”? Free to the reader? For a charge to the reader?

Electronic Digital Right Question #3, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Can the work be distributed on CD-Rom? By whom? In what manner and context?

Electronic Digital Right Question #4, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: To what extent does the author, himself or herself, wish to self-publish this work, either before or after granting any electronic right or any individual “electronic publishing” rights therein to someone else? Will such self-publication occur on or through the author’s website? Otherwise?

Electronic Digital Right Question #5, Asked By The Publishing Lawyer/Entertainment Attorney To The Author: Even if the author does not self-publish, to what extent does the author wish to be able to use and disseminate this writing for his or her own portfolio, publicity, or self-marketing purposes, and perhaps disseminate that same writing (or excerpts thereof) electronically? Should that be deemed invasive of, or competitive with, the electronic right as otherwise contractually and collectively constituted?

The above list is illustrative but not exhaustive. Any author and any publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney will likely think of other elements of the electronic and digital right and other uses as well. The number of possible uses and complexities of the electronic right[s] and digital right[s] definitions will increase as technology advances. In addition, different authors will have different responses to the publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney, to each of the carefully-itemized questions. Moreover, the same author may be concerned with the electronic right in the context of one of his/her works, but may not care so much in the context of a second and different work not as susceptible to digital right exploitation. Therefore, the author must self-examine on these types of electronic and digital right questions before responding to the author’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney and then entering into each individual deal. Only by doing so can the author avoid the pitfalls and perils of relying upon lingo, and relying upon someone else to dictate to them what is the electronic right or digital right “industry standard”. As the publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney should opine, “There is no such thing as ‘industry standard’ in the context of a bilaterally-negotiated contract. The only standard that you the author should be worried about is the motivational ‘standard’ known as: ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get'”.

Finally, the author should be aware that while the electronic right, digital right, and components thereof can be expressly granted, they can also be expressly reserved to the author, by a mere stroke of the pen or keystroke made by the publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney. For example, if an author wants to expressly reserve the “portfolio uses” mentioned in Electronic Digital Right Question #5 above, then the author should ask his or her publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney to clearly recite this reservation of the author portfolio electronic/digital right in the contract, and leave nothing to chance. In addition, if the author has some negotiating leverage, the author, through the publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney, may be able to negotiate the “safety net” of a “savings clause” which provides words to the effect that: “all rights not expressly granted to publisher, be it an electronic right or digital right or otherwise, are specifically reserved to author for his/her sole use and benefit”. That way, the “default provision” of the contract may automatically capture un-granted rights including any electronic or digital right for the author’s later use. This publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney drafting technique has likely saved empires in the past.

2. Publishers and Entertainment Companies Are Revising Their Boilerplate Agreements, As We Speak, In An Effort To Secure The Electronic Right[s].

It is well-known and should come as no surprise that right now, as we speak, publishers and their in-house and outside counsel publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys are furiously re-drafting their boilerplate contracts to more thoroughly capture the digital and electronic right – that is, all of an author’s digital and electronic rights. The typical publishing agreement drafted by a company-side publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney will recite a broad grant of rights, then followed by a whole laundry-list of “including but not limited to” examples. If the author receives such an onerous-looking rights passage from a publisher or the publisher’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney, the author should not be intimidated. Rather, the author should look at it as an opportunity to make some money and have some fun. The author can first compare the list suggested in Electronic Digital Right Questions #1 through #5 above, to the publisher’s own laundry-list and the author’s own imagination. Then, the author can decide which if any of the separate digital or electronic rights the author wants to fight to keep for himself or herself.

If the publisher tells the author to blindly subscribe to their entire digital or electronic right[s] clause (or clauses), then the author still has the ultimate leverage, which is to walk away from the proposed deal prior to signature. Of course, this strategic approach wouldn’t be advisable in most cases – unless perhaps if the author has other written offers from other publishers already on the table. However, an author shouldn’t be forced by any publisher or any company-side publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney to sign away the electronic right, digital right, or any other rights that the author would rather keep – particularly rights which the author never specifically intended to shop to the publisher in the first instance.

The author should keep in mind the psychology and motivations of the publishers and their publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney counsel when doing all of this. A Vice-President (or above) at the publishing company probably woke up one recent morning, and realized that his/her company lost a great deal of money on a particular project by not taking a prospective license or assignment of an electronic right or digital right from another author. The VP probably then blamed the company’s in-house legal department publishing lawyers or entertainment attorneys, who in turn started frantically re-drafting the company boilerplate to assuage the angry publishing executive and thereby keep their jobs. When in-house publishing lawyers, entertainment attorneys, or others engage in this type of practice (some may call it “drafting from fear”), they tend to go overboard.

Accordingly, what you will probably see is a proverbial “kitchen sink” electronic right clause which has been newly-drafted and perhaps even insufficiently reviewed by the company-side publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, internally and themselves – wherein the publisher will ask the author for every possible electronic and digital right and every other thing, including (without limitation) the kitchen sink. The only response to such a broad-band electronic right or digital right clause is a careful, deliberate, and methodical reply.

Using the approach outlined in Section #1 above, the author and the author’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney counsel must separately tease apart each use and component of the electronic right and digital right that the publisher’s broad-band clause might otherwise capture, and then opine to the publisher a “yes” or a “no” on each line-item. In other words, the author, through his or her publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney, should exercise his or her line-item veto. It’s the author’s writing that we are talking about, after all. The author should be the one to convert the singular “electronic right” or “digital right” into the laundry-list of electronic rights. That’s why I use the singular number when referring to “electronic right” or “digital right” – I like to let the technologically-advanced author have all the fun making the list. That way, too, the author can tell me what he or she thinks the phrases actually mean, and what the difference between the two meanings really is, if anything.

Next, a few words in defense of the publishers and the publishing lawyers that work for them!

Up to now, this article discussed how phrases like the “digital right” or “electronic right” should not be assumed to be self-defining, even by and between publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, and how it is incumbent upon authors to reserve needed rights like the digital right or the electronic right to themselves in the context of a publishing deal. Next up, let’s examine concepts such as the digital right or electronic right from the perspective of the publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney, and the standpoint of fairness – who between author and publisher should in fact hold on to the digital right and electronic right, once and assuming that they are first properly defined?

3. Yes, Digital Right And Electronic Right Uses Do Compete With Traditional Book Publishing Uses.

A publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney may be called upon to handle an author-side deal. A publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney may also be called upon to handle, under different factual circumstances, a publisher-side deal. So, now, a few words in defense of publishers, I suppose.

There is a perception in the author and Internet communities that publishers should not be taking broad grants of the digital right or electronic right from authors, since “digital rights and electronic rights do not compete or interfere with traditional book publishing and other media rights”.

Not true. Not anymore. For proof of that fact, ask a few veteran news desk editors whether or not they followed, or were otherwise concerned about, what appeared on the Drudge Report during the Clinton administration. Ask the CFO’s or in-house publishing lawyers of a few traditional encyclopedia companies how they feel about Wikipedia.

Incidentally, although as a publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney and unlike some others, I tend to use the phrase “electronic right” or even “digital right” in the singular number, there probably tends to be no single consensus as to what constitutes and collectively comprises the singular “electronic right” or “digital right”. There has not been sufficient time for the publishing, media, or entertainment industries to fully crystallize accurate and complete definitions of phrases like “electronic publishing”, “web publishing”, “electronic right[s]”, “e-rights”, “digital right[s]”, or “first electronic rights”.

Nevertheless, electronic media and specifically the digital right and electronic right, have already changed our history. You can be sure that they will have some effect, at a minimum, on most author’s individual publishing deals henceforth, and will be the fodder of publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney discussion for years to come. The fact is, electronic uses inherent in the digital right and the electronic right already do compete with older, more traditional uses – particularly because digital and electronic uses are cheaper and faster to deploy, and can potentially reach millions of users in less than, as Jackson Browne might say, the blink of an eye.

Commerce is increasingly relying upon the Internet and other electronic phenomena, and the linchpin of this reliance is the digital right and electronic right. After all, you are reading this article, and ostensibly gleaning some information or material from it. The Web, for example, has already put a sizable dent in dictionary and encyclopedia sales, and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably an employee in a dictionary or encyclopedia publishing company or publishing lawyer in-houser in denial of the digital and electronic right, trying to protect his/her stock options. As the recent and well-known Stephen King pilot program will attest, fiction is the next subject matter area to be affected. Many of us book lovers including publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys don’t like to think about it, but bound hard-copy books may soon become the sole province of book collectors and publishing lawyer vanity bookcases alone. The vast majority of book readers, however, may so wholly embrace the digital right and electronic right that they soon even lose the patience to wait for their “amazon.com” mailed shipment.

Very few people who work in the publishing, media, and entertainment industries, including as amongst fair-minded publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, should dispute that electronic uses inherent in the digital right and electronic right can easily cannibalize the older and more traditional forms and formats. This cannibalization will only increase, not decrease, as time goes on. Again, the author should put himself/herself in the mind-set of the publisher or its in-house publishing lawyer, when having this digital right/electronic right argument with the publisher or publishing lawyer. The publisher otherwise may want to invest marketing and personnel support in the author’s work, and perhaps even pay the author an advance for the writing. In their view, though, the publisher’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney argues, why should they do so, and not also capture the author’s digital right or electronic right?

The last thing that the publisher or its publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney wants to do is to pay the author – and then discover that the author has “scooped” the publication with the author-reserved digital right or electronic right, stolen the publisher’s proverbial fire, and undermined the publisher’s investment in the author and the writing. The concern of the publisher and the book company’s in-house publishing lawyer or outside entertainment attorney is rational and valid. If the publisher allows the author to potentially undercut the book by exploiting author’s reserved digital right or electronic right, then the publisher is threatening the publisher’s own investment in the author and in the written work. (And on some subliminal level at least, the company’s in-house publishing lawyer also knows that this could come out of his or her future comp).

Compromises are available. One traditional compromise effected between publishing lawyers or entertainment attorneys is a so-called “hold-back” on the digital right or electronic right, whereby the author promises not to use or license-out any author-reserved digital right or electronic right for a certain period of time following publication. The author will need some leverage to get a publisher to agree to such a compromise, though. And a publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney should draft the clause – the author’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney, not the publisher’s counsel!

An author may think that small “portfolio” uses (e.g., tucked inside greeting cards, on an author’s personal web site, etc.) are so minor, that they will never compete with publishing rights granted for the same work, and may tell the publisher or the company’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney as much. The greeting card example does seem innocuous enough, but the publisher and its entertainment or publishing lawyer will likely not agree with the author regarding the author’s personal web site. It is the electronic right or the digital right that really scares publishers and their publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, and is perceived as threatening to their long-term investment in the author and his or her work.

The distinction to be made here is between hard-copy portfolio uses, and digital right or electronic right “portfolio uses”. The fact is that computer-uploaded text is so easy and quick to transmit, receive, and read. The posted content’s popularity could also spread like digital wildfire, so quickly – for example, if a company hyper-links to the author’s site, or if “Yahoo” bumps the author’s site up in their search-engine pecking-order. Many successes have already been made by virtue of digital right and electronic right self-publishing, and more will follow. Traditional (book) publishers and their publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys already realize this fact. Accordingly, traditional book publishers and their counsel also realize that once they acknowledge an author’s reservation of a “self-promotion” digital right or electronic right, they risk losing control of a potential wildfire dissemination method. Again, this would put the publisher’s investment at risk – but smart business people and companies and the publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys that represent them, don’t put their own investments at risk.

4. The Party To The Contract That Has The Better And More Immediate Means and Resources To Exploit The Electronic Rights, Should Be The One Who Takes The Electronic Rights.

Here is the final point. If a contracting party has no means and resources to exploit a digital right or electronic right or a given bundle of them, then that same party has no business taking (or reserving to themselves) those same digital or electronic rights by contract or even negotiating such a position by and between publishing lawyers or entertainment attorneys. To analogize, if I am a screenwriter who options or sells my script to the Acme Production Company, LLC, through an entertainment lawyer, how should I react if Acme asks me to specifically and contractually grant them “theme park rights” in my literary property in the negotiation between the entertainment attorneys? (Don’t laugh – this practice is now very prevalent in film and entertainment deals).

Well, if Acme doesn’t have its own theme park, I (or my entertainment attorney) now have a powerful argument for reserving the theme park rights to myself instead. “Hey, Acme”, I (or my entertainment attorney) say, “… how do you have the unmitigated gall to ask me for my theme park rights, when you don’t even have the ability to exploit or use them yourself? You don’t even have a theme park!” I (or my entertainment attorney) then make it clear to Acme that I don’t intend to be giving them any trophies that they can put on a shelf to collect proverbial dust.

The same argument can work in the publishing context, particularly as argued between publishing lawyers and entertainment attorneys, regarding the digital right or the electronic right. The author can proverbially cross-examine the publisher (or try to cross-examine the company’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney) as to what successful past uses they have made of other author’s digital rights or electronic rights across multiple books. The company President may fudge the answer, but the publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney representing the publisher must answer truthfully. (One good reason to negotiate through counsel).

If the true answer to the question is “none”, then the author can use the “trophy” argument stated above. If the true answer is, alternatively, “some”, then the author has a negotiating opportunity to compel the publisher and its publishing lawyer and entertainment attorney to contractually commit to digitally and electronically publish the author’s work, too. The author can argue: “I won’t grant you the digital right or electronic right unless you, publisher, contractually commit in advance as to how specifically you will exploit them, and how much money you will spend in their development and marketing”. The author or the author’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney can then carve those electronic right and digital right commitments right directly into the contract, if the author has the leverage to do so. Again, one should not try this at home – but instead use a publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney.

Needless to say, once the author makes the publisher commit, presumably through publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney counsel, to a development budget or other marketing or “release” commitment for the digital right or the electronic right, then both the author and the publisher might thereby also have some basis for numerical valuation of the rights themselves. And, it is an entirely reasonable argument for an author or author’s publishing lawyer or entertainment attorney to say to a publisher that: “I will license/sell you the following listed digital right[s] or electronic right[s] if you pay me the following additional amounts for them:_____________________. And in the blank space, the rights can be listed like menu options as they have been broken out in Item #1 above, each to which separate dollar values – that is, price-tags – are now assigned.