Rights and licensing: In the publishing industry

Manas Sakia, MD, Feel Books Pvt Ltd, shares his views on rights, licensing and translations in publishing industry.


Rights and the process of licensing has been a vital part of the development of publishing worldwide. The explosion of knowledge over the past 100 years would not have happened without the trading of rights and licensing of copyright. If you look at history, you will find that it took hundreds of years for ideas and knowledge to travel to various parts of the world.

History of rights exchange…

In 1886, the Berne Convention was signed and from thence started the exchange of rights and licensing. Since then the speed of spread of Science and Culture increased worldwide. Over some time, authors lost their hesitancy in sharing their original thoughts or discoveries as they knew they would get credit and indeed royalty whoever or wherever their writings were copied.

For an Indian context, think how knowledge and religious rituals etc. was closely guarded by families over hundreds of years and passed on only orally. Indeed the Rig Veda existed only in an oral form for a millennia. Where would we have been if copyright or some form of it had existed even a 1000 years ago. In China there were the Imperial and other protected Scribes who recorded everything in detail. The extent of what Chinese knowledge had developed, has only been recently researched and published in the West. Prominent is the 50+ volume “Science and Civilization in China.”

Translations taking words worldwide…

Now knowledge moves as fast as the internet does. If an article is written in an electronic journal like Nature, it is available in minutes in Japan and in Japanese! This is all possible because of rights and licensing which leads to translation.

If you look at the list of all the Nobel Laureates in Literature, figure out how many would not have been known outside the language they wrote in. If not for rights, licensing and translation thereof, they may have remained unknown!

History of copyright…

It may interest some readers to know that copyright protection did not exist in the US for works published elsewhere for a long time as the US refused to sign Berne as they felt it to be too harsh. So until 1952 it was a free for all American publishers. Anything published in English would be available in weeks in an American version (steamers took at least a week) and prominent French, German authors would get American translated versions a little later. In 1952, after a lot of pressure the Universal Copyright Convention (UCC) was created which the US signed. For a book to be protected under UCC, a copyright symbol has to be added on the title page reverse primarily. In 1979, Berne was amended and the US finally signed Berne in 1989. (All publishers should still use the copyright symbol as there are many countries who have accepted UCC but not Berne.) Frankfurt has existed as a general trade fair for over 500 years. Handwritten books were exchanged at this fair for several hundred years. The Frankfurt Book Fair, as we know it, started in 1949 and with the coming of the Americans a little later, trading in rights and licenses started in earnest.

Enforcement of rights and licenses…

What would happen if there was no formally accepted, recognized and legally enforceable way of buying and selling rights and licenses. Take publishing in Bengali. If a bestselling Bengali author is published in Kolkata, within 72 hours,a pirated edition is available in Dacca. No rights deal, no license, no royalty.

Previously In English publishing in fiction and trade non fiction, the US and “Britain and Commonwealth” would be the subject of separate rights deals .The trend worldwide is now for the major publishers to reserve rights worldwide in English electronic versions, film etc. Other languages trading happens but some of the big five have their own or related publishers especially in French German and Spanish. For example, Penguin and Random House have German ownership and Hachette is French and they have their related publishers in those languages.

Indian context…

In the field of textbooks, licensing of Indian reprints has slowed down to a trickle, primarily because of the re-export of cheaper reprints back to the prime markets in the US and other English speaking areas. Because of the rampant photocopying that goes on in India, this does not adversely affect students. There is piracy on a large scale. Even if the laws are good enough, copyright in books in India is not legally enforceable.

The publishing segment that seems to be doing well in India is that of the major Indian languages. Distribution and the terrible problems in collecting money has been holding down Indian language publishing for a long time. In Marathi, because of a booksellers consortium agreement and timely payments, there has been very strong growth. Most other cases are seeing strong growth because of E Commerce. Amazon for example is seeing over 100% growth in several languages. This is a very good trend and long may they grow! As to rights trading between Indian language publishers, it is I think still in nascent form. It is dependent on confidence developed between publishers. If contracts, and a license is but a contract, become easier to enforce, the potential will be huge.

On the issue of translation it is a pity that in a country with so many languages, so little attention is paid to the training of translators. Every Indian language, should have special departments for “translation development and training” in at least one major University in their area with support and adequate funding.

On literary agents…

On the role of Literary Agents, It is their objective to maximize the earnings of the authors and as a result themselves as they take a commission. I look forward to the day that a good rights market is developed among Indian players. The only requisite is that contracts become enforceable . Hopefully not too much to ask!

Manas Saikia began his career in publishing at Oxford University Press (OUP). He has also worked with Springer and Narosa Publishing House before moving to British Council. In 1991, he in partnership with Vinod Vashistha, created Foundation Books, which was later taken over by Cambridge University Press (CUP) and renamed Cambridge University Press India Pvt. Ltd. Manas was awarded an Honorary M.A. by The University of Cambridge.

He is currently Vice President of FBPAI. After retirement from CUP, Manas Saikia created two new companies – Speaking Tiger LLP and Feel Books Pvt. Ltd. Presently, he is Managing Director of Feel Books Pvt. Ltd.

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