I came across a reference to this op-ed piece from the New York Times on a friend's LJ: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/opinion/03galassi.html?ref=opinion
It's a very thought provoking piece, but as a writer I find some of it disturbing.
First, the piece presents a somewhat narrow view of e-publishing, in that it assumes that you're only talking about exactly reproducing an edition of a book that existed first in print somewhere. In the case under discussion, that's apparently the situation, but that's a relatively small portion of e-publishing today. There are a great many smaller presses these days which publish primarily in e-book format. Often the e-book is the first edition, complete with ISBN, and print rights may be negotiated for later. The two are very clearly differentiated in the contract between author and publisher.
With respect to the situation which prompted the editorial, it seems pretty clear that the current copyright holders of the text cannot legally simply reproduce the Random House edition without the permission of Random House.
For one thing, while Mr. Styron's heirs own the copyright to his works, subject to agreements he made with any publishers which may they be in force, they very likely don't own the rights to the cover or interior art. If the rights to the text have reverted to them upon expiration of an agreement with Random House, the right to the art have probably also reverted to the artist, unless they were considered work-for-hire, in which case Random House still owns them.
Nor can Random House simply produce an e-book edition, unless there's language in the original contract which allows for multiple formats. If Random House still holds rights, and the language in the contract regarding formats is sufficiently vague, then they might be able to generate the e-book edition, and send royalties as specified in the contract. Otherwise they would need to negotiate with the current copyright holders for the additional format rights.
However, as an author I'm disturbed by the suggestion that the editor was such a substantial contributor to the work that it conveys any kind of proprietary interest in the work to the publisher, beyond the term of the contract between author and publisher.
It's pretty clearly spelled out in my contracts that I supply the work, and am expected to work with the editor to make it meet my publishers house editorial standards. There's a give and take between author and editor, which results in a final product. That final product is still mine, regardless of the amount of blood, sweat and tears the editor expended on it. (And I don't mean to denigrate editors here - a good editor is a wonderful thing.)
But when my contract lapses, if the publisher doesn't renew it, or I turn them down because I don't like the terms, or for no reason at all, the final text which the editor and I agreed upon is still mine to take away. Not the typesetting, layout, page design, and production details, and not the marketing text and materials (unless I also wrote that, which is often the case with my current publisher), but the edited final text is mine.
This article reads as if Mr. Galassi would like to claim otherwise, and that bothers me.