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I know that a publisher usually demands exclusive publishing rights for a period of time. However, if that author creates an online course based on the book, would that typically be restricted by the publisher contract?

Context: I run a platform for creating online courses. These courses have text and images like books, but the experience is interactive, like a game or choose-your-own-adventure. I want to approach writers with the offer of creating courses derived from their published books. However, I don't know if their publisher contracts would typically allow this.

I found the Model Trade Book Contract by The Authors Guild. In Section 21 on "Competitive Works", I read:

During the first year after publication, Author shall not Publish or authorize to be Published, without the written permission of the Publisher, any full-length work specifically intended to supplant the Work in the marketplace, and which would clearly and directly harm the sale of the Work.

The online course would never be "specifically intended to supplant" the book. I doubt it would harm book sales (it may even help). And the one-year expiry would not hinder me. However:

  • Could the publisher successfully argue that a course is "specifically intended to supplant" the book? What would it take to successfully argue this?
  • Is the Model Trade Book Contract actually typical here? Or are real-world contracts typically more onerous?
  • Are there other sections/clauses of the contract that I should be looking at? Or is this "competitive works" section the only relevant one?
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  • Your question is about a narrow group of your potential market: recently published authors who have already signed specific 'other media' non-compete clauses into their publishing agreement…. I think you have a good idea. Let those other people worry about their restrictive contracts.
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 14, 2022 at 14:27

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This is going to depend on the detailed language used in the actual contract, and my understanding is that such contracts vary widely. In many cases the language may well be negotiable, particularly on what the publisher may regard as relatively minor points.

A publisher can insist on any language at all. It can insist that the author make no derivative works of any sort for 30 years. But often they won't get an author to agree to so broad a provision.

This is where an author's agent can be helpful, if you have one. Explain the situation and your concern to your agent, and ask the agent to be sure that language in the contract would not preclude the sort of course development you have in mind. (the same would apply to any other planned derivative works.)

If you don't have an agent, you could hire a lawyer to review the contract. Or you could explain your issue to the editor or other representative of the publisher, and ask to have a term added that specifically permits such online courses.

A reasonable publisher would not object, because such courses are unlikely to harm the market for the book, and might even serve to advertise it to some degree. Of course, not all publishers are reasonable.

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