High Court to Decide Who Owns Newspaper Archives ; Freelance Writers Will Argue Tomorrow That They Deserve Royalties for Use of Articles in Digital Databases

Article excerpt

Internet-based electronic archives of newspaper and magazine articles have revolutionized the business of current-events research.

In years past, researchers would have to thumb through hundreds of pages of bound volumes or scroll through scores of microfiche editions in search of a single article. In contrast, it is now possible to electronically search hundreds of different publications and view the results within seconds.

To media companies like Lexis/Nexis, it is a highly lucrative business venture. But to the freelance writers who authored many of the articles being retrieved, it is cyber-piracy.

The writers say they sold their articles for one-time-only publication in a newspaper or magazine only to find their work available internationally on a continuing basis on the Internet or being redistributed and sold via electronic archive services without their consent.

The media companies say they have violated no laws and that many freelance writers don't object to the wider circulation their works have received.

On Wednesday, the dispute goes to the US Supreme Court, where the justices are being asked to examine the scope of US copyright law at the dawn of the digital age.

"These media companies are the biggest thieves of copyright material on the planet," says Jonathan Tasini, a freelance writer and president of the National Writer's Union. "We deserve a fair share of the digital revolution's revenues."

Mr. Tasini is one of six freelancers who filed a potential landmark copyright-infringement lawsuit eight years ago against The New York Times, Time Inc., Newsday, Lexis/Nexis, and University Microfilms.

The justices' task will be to decide whether a provision in the Copyright Act of 1976 grants newspaper and magazine publishers the authority to post freelance articles on their Internet editions and make those same articles available to electronic archives.

If the court agrees with the freelance writers, it could expose virtually every newspaper and magazine publisher in the US to potentially billions of dollars in liability to compensate for decades of copyright infringements involving the work of tens of thousands of freelance writers, photographers, and illustrators.

The publishers insist they are on firm legal ground. In their brief to the court, filed by Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, they argue that copyright law is written broadly enough to encompass distribution of freelance articles beyond the paper pages of a newspaper or magazine. …