When book publishers rallied against Google's library book scanning project last year, they accused the tech giant of stealing. In a lawsuit filed in New York federal court, the publishers claimed that if Google Inc. made digital copies of library books available online for search purposes, the tech company would be committing massive copyright infringement. But then one book publisher, HarperCollins, tried to steal a page from its antagonist's playbook, announcing that it would make its entire backlist, about 20,000 titles, including such classics as "Charlotte's Web," available online. Publishers didn't have a problem -- but book authors and their lawyers did a double take.
HarperCollins' announcement didn't sit well with Michael Boni, a partner in Philadelphia's Kohn, Swift & Graf, who is representing The Authors Guild in a different copyright suit against Google. Boni questions whether the New York-based publisher, a division of News Corp., has any more authority than Google to digitize books. "The Authors Guild is looking very closely at this," he says.
The Authors Guild isn't alone. HarperCollins' announcement had authors and their lawyers scrambling to review book contracts signed with the publisher. According to various sources in the book industry, many of these contracts make no mention of publishers getting "electronic rights" (also called "digital" or "display" rights). And even where they do, authors aren't at peace.