As far as Markus Dohle of Random House is concerned, if it walks like a book, looks like a book and sounds like a book, it's a book and Random House bought the rights when they signed a contract with the author.
Literary agent Nat Sobel doesn't see the analogy between e-books and physical books in the same light.
Back in the dark ages, before anyone really believed that one day we'd be reading books on a screen, authors granted publishers the right to print the book, in hardcover or paperback.
Now Random House has decided that, since they purchased a manuscript, it's all the same. They can publish the electronic version and not have to cut a new deal.
That's bad news for literary agents who represent authors' estates. It's the back list that Random House is planning to offer, the back list titles that were published without a thought to protecting the e-book rights.
Random House would like to claim that a contract allowing them to publish something "in book form" automatically means they have the Kindle business exclusively, but literary agents aren't on the same page. Is a Kindle or Sony e-Reader "book form"? Or is it a modified computer, a device wholly unrelated to books in any form?
The argument means a great deal to authors and agents, who make money off granting rights piecemeal. It means a great deal to new start-ups, where the business model is built on gaining e-book rights of old back list titles for sale to new reading devices. Random House, of course, would like all the profit for itself.
Eventually, someone will take Random House to court and sue, citing the success of RosettaBooks LLC, which won the right to publish e-book versions of old titles by William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut for three to six years.
Since that time period has lapsed, it could be that Random House is trying again, with a different judge and a fresh bank of lawyers, to grab up e-book rights without having to pay the authors another dime.