Who owns the e-book rights to books published years before there was such a thing ? HarperCollins Publishers and one of its former bosses in America are heading to court over what has become a key issue in publishing.
Two days before Christmas, the Wall Street Journal reports, HarperCollins filed a copyright suit against Open Road Integrated Media.
The aim: to block Open Road from selling an e-book edition of Jean Craighead George's children's novel "Julie of the Wolves" first published 40 years ago.
Open Road, which published the e-book version last August, is run by Jane Friedman, a former CEO of HarperCollins.
The issue is whether book contracts written before the digital age granted publishers digital rights, or whether those rights were retained by the author and could be sold to an e-publisher.
In 2001 Random House tried and failed to stop e-publisher Rosetta Books from selling e-book editions of titles by Random House authors Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron and Robert B. Parker.
E-books were new then but the WSJ points out, "Thanks to the popularity of electronic-reading devices, e-books have become the fastest-growing segment of the publishing business. One leading publisher recently estimated that e-books could be as much as 40% of revenue by the end of 2012."
Most publishers have added specific clauses to secure e-book rights since the mid 1990s. But what about books published before that?
"Julie of the Wolves" first published in 1972 has sold more than 3.8 million copies down the years. HarperCollins says Open Road's digital edition is "directly competitive" with its current paperbacks editions - and HarperCollins's own plans to publish it as an e-book.
Chris Davis, chief operating officer of Open Road, says, "HarperCollins is trying to intimidate authors, overturn established law and grab rights that were not in existence when the contracts were signed many years ago. We are confident that we will successfully defend authors' rights."
HarperCollins says its contract with Ms. George grants it the right to publish in the U.S. and Canada the novel "in book form." And that includes, the publisher insists, an e-book.
The WSJ, which notes that it is owned by News Corp as is HarperCollins, ran a poll on it website to find what readers thought. Nine out of ten respondents said the rights should stay with the authors and their estates.