NEW YORK — A federal judge in Manhattan ruled Wednesday that the term "book" in book contracts does not automatically include electronic books. The decision goes to the heart of a battle over who controls the right to sell digital editions of the vast majority of work published in the last century,
The ruling is the latest in a series of verdicts indicating that courts view the Internet as a new form of media, not easily governed by the rules of more traditional media.
The decision is a boon to authors and agents who hope to gain from reselling the digital rights to previously published work. Most publishers only began including explicit provisions for electronic publication rights in their contracts within the last 15 years.
Although no one yet knows the extent of consumer demand for electronic books, publishers fear that authors and Internet start-ups will begin selling digital files of their classic titles, potentially undercutting their own efforts to sell electronic books and even some print sales.
The judge, Sidney H. Stein of U.S. District Court, ruled that Random House could not block the Internet start-up RosettaBooks from selling digital files containing the contents of eight novels Random House publishes in print, including works by the novelists Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron and Robert B. Parker.
Rosetta signed new contracts with the authors for the rights to republish their novels as electronic books, to be bought, to be downloaded and read on a screen. Random House filed suit against RosettaBooks for copyright infringement, arguing the new publications violated its pre-existing contracts to publish the novels "in book form," noting that electronic books aim to replicate the experience of reading a printed book. Random House sought a preliminary injunction blocking RosettaBooks from selling the digital files.
Stein declined to issue the injunction in a strongly worded opinion indicating he believed the law was in RosettaBooks' favor. Based on the language of its contracts, he said, "Random House is not likely to succeed on the merits of its copyright infringement claim."
The case will now go to trial before the same judge, although Random House may seek to appeal the ruling on the preliminary injunction. "There will be a next step from Random House, but we have not yet decided what it is," said Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, a unit of Bertelsmann. In a statement, Random House said, "We stand by our view that an e-book is a book."
Applebaum said that Random House did not plan to sue its authors for breaching their contracts by signing with RosettaBooks