The Memo: What legal hurdles face publishers looking to edit old books?

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Fleming and Dahl: What rights do publishers have, preening the prints of past authors?

Taiwo Oshodi – 06 March 2023

Over the last few weeks, a number of publishers have announced changes to notable works of literature, most recently the James Bond franchise. Ian Fleming Publications, owners of the rights to the series, are looking to reissue the novels with removals of potentially offensive language and references to character ethnicities. This comes in the wake of an announcement of similar changes made to Roald Dahl books in a bid to appeal more to modern audiences, but criticism of the publishers has come hot on its heels. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak painted the changes as an attack on free speech, and even Philip Pullman – author of the His Dark Materials Trilogy – weighed in, arguing that books should simply be allowed to ‘fade away’ rather than edited.

While there have been questions around what rights publishers have to alter beloved works, the answer is, well, fairly significant rights. In the UK, the publisher’s copyright restricts people from reproducing the exact published text without the publisher’s consent until 25 years from the end of the year the edition was first published. Ian Fleming Publications retains the rights to the series, the copyright of which giving the company moral and economic rights over the reproduction, distribution, rental and lending, public performance, communication to the public, and, most importantly, adaptation.

Of course, like anything, there are a few obvious legal limits to the copyright-holders’ powers, namely within the remits of legal free speech. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 is the first obvious place to look, as while it does promote freedom of expression it also notes that this is subject to ‘formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law’. Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986, for example, made it an offence to use ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment or distress’. Now, it should come as no surprise that any author would have to be pushing the line pretty far to breach the legal boundaries of free speech, but this acts as a clear example of the authority copyright holders have over their properties. Ultimately, publishers can give themselves license to do as they see fit within these frameworks, so long as they own the rights to the writings.