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What are ISBNs, and what do they have to do with control of intellectual property?

What are ISBNs, and what do they have to do with control of intellectual property?

September 30, 2014

The International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, refers to a unique numbering system that is used by booksellers and librarians to distinguish one book from the next. Here is the definition from the International ISBN Agency:

“An ISBN is a number, not a bar code. … The ISBN identifies the title or other book-like product (such as an audiobook) to which it is assigned, but also the publisher to be contacted for ordering purposes. If an ISBN is obtained from a company other than the official ISBN Agency, that ISBN will not identify the publisher of the title accurately. This can have implications for doing business in the publishing industry supply chain.”

 The ISBN system has been in use for about 40 years. Everyone in book publishing uses the system. That includes publishers, distributors, wholesalers, bookstores and libraries. The basis for the system is that there can only be one number per book (product), which can never be used for another book. A paperback, hardcover, and eBook edition of the same title would require three separate ISBN numbers.

Years ago, while educating myself about the self-publishing industry, I encountered an online group discussion about ISBNs and self-publishing. The group was adamant and unified in its position that “true” self-publishers needed always to own their own ISBNs, and they disliked the fact that companies like iUniverse and Xlibris own the ISBNs of the books published through them. More than one participant told me that this practice meant that the author no longer owned the rights to his or her own book.

Coming from a traditional publishing background, the statement stunned me. Hadn’t any of them ever read a publishing contract? Now that is an instrument of control! Traditional publishing contracts typically run 14 pages or more, and cover every conceivable permutation of control and ownership. But what’s germane here is that traditional publishing contracts rarely, if ever, mention ISBNs. That’s because the ISBN has nothing to do with ownership of intellectual property, and is solely an instrument used for distribution.  What the online discussion group should have been concerned with were the contracts of the self-publishing companies. That’s where the damage is done to author rights, not in ownership of the lowly ISBN. On the other hand, problems stemming from confusion in book distribution caused by even a single use of a wrong ISBN can plague a book’s sales for years.

The group’s confusion about the legal standing of ISBNs may have stemmed from language commonly used in the publishing industry. A good example is the reporting of (Neilsen) BookScan, which tracks cash register sales of books based on their ISBN (which is encoded in each book’s barcode). Here, as in many distribution and wholesale agreements, each ISBN is linked to one unique book (product) with data including author and the “publisher of record.” The term “publisher of record” is understood in the industry as a stand-in for a book’s source; its function is to tell booksellers and librarians where they can order the book. Perhaps, to someone unfamiliar with its usage, “publisher of record” may have sounded an alarm. Indeed, a book’s distribution is a serious matter, but the role that ISBNs play in distribution, while crucial, is a practical matter, not a legal one. 

Paul Cohen

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