A growing number of small publishers are expressing concern about a new tactic in the library re-binding business that they believe is creating market confusion and cutting into their business—possibly illegally.

According to the publishers, Minnesota-based Sagebrush, which specializes in rebinding—the practice of buying original paperbacks and putting more durable covers on them for libraries—is now putting its own ISBNs on the editions, which are often sold via online booksellers as a hardcover edition, even though it has not acquired the rights. Although library rebinding has been done for decades, the new twist, publishers said, could lead to customers buying a title from a publisher that has no license to sell it, at the expense of the proper edition.

"It used to be a service—the company never put their name on their book or got an ISBN," said Rudy Shur, publisher of Square One Publishers. "But when somebody comes along and basically says they own the same book that you do when they don't, this is not an area that's gray. It's essentially an infringement on intellectual property."

The publishers and their trade group, the Publishers Marketing Association, said they're contemplating legal options, including a class-action lawsuit. "When you think about it, this is really ridiculous," said PMA head Jan Nathan. "If they can do this, I can get the latest John Grisham, put a new cover on it and sell it as my own book." She said she had "no idea how large [the problem] was" until she began soliciting members, and then concluded that it seems "really rampant." Amazon listings number in the thousands for Sagebrush books with new ISBNs.

Shur did concede that publishers receive a royalty when Sagebrush buys the books from wholesalers, but he said that because Sagebrush is doing hardcovers, it unfairly collects an even higher royalty and that, in any event, Sagebrush should not be directly benefiting from a title it does not own. "I'm amazed and stunned," he said.

Sagebrush declined to comment by phone, but in a written response to PW, the company said that a new ISBN is required, and that this led to miscategorization. "All pre-binders are being wrongly classified in the ISBN data as 'publisher,' wrote CEO Jim Zicarelli, adding, "We have been and continue to try to get such errors corrected when we become aware of them."

He acknowledged that online booksellers have changed the way customers view prebound editions, one of the claims of PMA. "What has changed is the Internet, and the growth of companies like Amazon.com, which have made it much easier for retail customers to buy pre-bound books." Zicarelli wrote.

PMA's lawyer, L.A.—based Jonathan Kirsch, said that Sagebrush's activity is problematic on two counts: on copyright, because fresh ISBNs and new marketing could take a title beyond the protection of the so-called first-sale doctrine, which allows customers to sell books without fundamentally altering them (and is what makes legal the sale of used books); and the Lanham Act, which allows for fair competition, since a new edition with a new ISBN in this age of easy online access can create confusion.