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We're a small not-for-profit group (but not yet a registered company) making a web app which allows people to write books, basically. They write the text with the ideas, and we help choose the layout, etc. We're essentially publishers. However, this is meant exclusively for people who want to share their ideas for free to the world.

Recently I've been thinking about the legal complications of this. The works are free - but only for now, I may think about offering payment services to the author - but the author still owns the copyright. And the books are on our servers and people will be able to download copies. And what about the author selling books on other sites like Amazon? What are the ownership complications here, and how, as a very small group of people with no couple of billion dollars to spare, will we resolve them?

Essentially, I'm asking what are the copyright and ownership complications that come with something like YouTube, but for literary works?

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I'm not a lawyer, and don't take this as legal advice, but here are some things that work:

  • Make users provide works under a license

    The content in your question, and this answer is under a license. By posting to Stack Exchange, you've provided your content under the terms of the Creative Commons BY-SA license. This provides you with rights for you to manipulate, distribute, profit... the content that you receive from your users. This way, the author still owns the copyright, and it provides you with rights to remain legally clear. Chances are, you may want to get a lawyer that can create a custom license with all your details.

  • Never mind. The first one's got it all :)

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  • So, if the works are free, I can probably allow users to release under GPL/MIT. If the work is paid, I could have a more restrictive license. But the problem is that if the work is paid, and the user puts some sort of restrictive license on it, then there might be complications by us storing it on our servers. Also, if the work is free I might only permit users to release their book under GPL/MIT as the whole point is to ensure more ideas. However once again there might be complications as I have no idea about the laws regarding forcing people to use a specific license (contd.) – naiveai Apr 5 '16 at 14:05
  • (contd.) because as far as I know, no one other than the author is allowed to put a license on any given work. – naiveai Apr 5 '16 at 14:05
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It looks like you might have in mind the possibility of "downgrading" open access rights, to go from being more available to less available, and that can get tricky. If a copyright holder does nothing, then absolutely nobody is allowed to make a copy (which seems to be diametrically opposed to your intent). With the right kind of license, anyone can make a copy (precluding a payment scheme). The standard commercial approach is to ease loosen up the "do-nothing" plan by giving permission to copy in exchange for money.

It becomes a problem if you initially say "anybody can do anything", and then later add the condition "provides that you pay us". That restricts subsequent unpaid copies of version 1.1 with that license, but has no effect on copies of version 1.0 which have the do-anything license, which undercuts any plan for paying. This simply means that you need to be consistent in your license for a given work, and if you add the option for payment later on, that would be for works subsequently added to the catalog. Since "take freely" and "copy only in exchange for money" are polar opposites, at the conceptual level you should not try to reconcile these options. Instead, you shouldoffer two completely separate services.

In order for you to put the work on your server at all (with or without the pay option), the author needs to grant you some license. They can grant you a non-exclusive license to distribute copies in exchange for money, which would allow you to conventionally sell copies), and since the license is non-exclusive, they can grant another seller a non-exclusive license to do likewise.

Although only the copyright holder can specify the terms of the license, you as service-provider can stipulate what kinds of licenses will be tolerated in exchange for your service. As a starter, the license should grant you permission to distribute in some manner, for some period, you probably need an indemnification clause just in case an "author" is an IP thief and the real author tries to sue you (though beware attempts to collect blood from a turnip), or you could be sure that you follow the DMCA "safe harbor" rules. Beyond that, there are policy and intent questions that you'd have to understand, i.e. what are you hoping to exclude?

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