Old publishing contracts are usually silent on electronic rights and e-books, which of course may not have been invented when the contract was signed.
So. Does this mean that those rights belong to the original publisher, who can be presumed to have all book rights even if the specific technology wasn't invented yet? Or does it belong to the author, because there is a reserved rights clause that states that all rights not belonging to the publisher (including, presumably, those that have not been invented) belong to the author?
There is a somewhat under-the-radar legal battle going on right now between HarperCollins and Open Road over the e-book rights to Jean Craighead George's Julie of the Wolves that should have significant implications for this landscape moving forward.
The suit hinges over what exactly it means to publishing something "in book form."
There are tons of old publishing contracts out there, and many of them are for books that continue to sell to this day. Whether the original publisher or the author/author's estate has the right to these e-book rights will have a massive impact on the future of the business.
For authors, it can be far more lucrative to sell those rights directly to another publisher or e-publisher than to simply receive an e-book royalty from the original publisher. Meanwhile, publishers have countless backlist titles that could be threatened depending on the specific wording of very very old publishing contracts.
Art: Fencing-match by Charles Jean Robineau