How Are Authors Faring Post-Tasini?

By Ardito, Stephanie C. | Information Today, April 2004 | Go to article overview

How Are Authors Faring Post-Tasini?


Ardito, Stephanie C., Information Today


When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of freelance writers on June 21, 2001 (New York Times Co., Inc., et al. v. Tasini, et al.), many of us assumed that significant changes would take place in the publishing world. Publishers would negotiate with the freelancers, paying retrospective royalties for articles placed in electronic databases without permission. New copyright payment mechanisms would spring up to handle distribution of royalties to non-publishers. Existing licensing systems would encourage authors, who retain their copyrights and don't turn them over to publishers, to register their articles and be compensated for electronic reuse of their works. Academic authors would jump on the bandwagon and finally be compensated for publishing their research papers. In short, we expected the balance of power to start shifting from publishers to authors.

In the nearly 3 years since the freelancers' victory, we've read numerous articles about the negative repercussions of the Supreme Court decision. The immediate reaction of publishers and online services was to threaten withdrawal of the freelancers' works from databases. Librarians and information professionals rose up, asking what they were going to do about gaps in coverage and pleading with the content providers to bargain with the freelancers.

Databases were analyzed to see how many publications and articles were deleted. Factiva and Dialog mounted lists of sources that were completely removed at publishers' requests, and they published lists of newspapers from which individual freelance articles were eliminated from their databases. The New York Times requested that 115,000 articles written by 27,000 authors be eradicated from the Nexis service. Fortunately for the searcher, while lists from the commercial online services still exist, the number of deleted publications and individual articles has dwindled. Some freelance articles and complete publications were restored to the online services; others remain permanently purged.

The focus of this article is not to rehash the pros and cons of the Supreme Court decision on gaps in coverage. Rather, the object is to examine the author's perspective since the Tasini case was adjudicated. In hindsight, do authors still consider the Tasini decision momentous? Are there any regrets over their nearly 15-year battle to be compensated for electronic reuse?

To answer these questions and others, I contacted the leaders of three authors' organizations: the National Writers Union, the Authors Guild, and Text and Academic Authors. I also spoke with Jonathan Tasini, the central figure in spearheading the authors' suit and Supreme Court decision. Tasini has left the National Writers Union and is currently national director of the American Rights at Work organization (http://www.americanrights atwork.org).

NWU's Stance

One of the major functions of the National Writers Union (NWU) is the operation of the Publication Rights Clearinghouse. The authors' equivalent to the publishers' Copyright Clearance Center, PRC acts as an agent for authors, collecting royalty payments on their behalf. I spoke with Gerard Colby, president of NWU, about author payments since the Tasini decision.

When the Supreme Court ruling was announced in June 2001, NWU did see a spike in new member registrations. The judgment seemed to be instrumental in bringing awareness to freelancers about their rights to collect payment on electronic works loaded into databases without the authors' permission. Some NWU members subsequently received back-royalty payments for electronic reuse. Generally, however, freelance writers are still waiting for retrospective payments. Since the Tasini victory prompted NWU to initiate class-action suits against publishers and database services, Colby is confident that successful settlement of these cases will occur "within a few months." At that point, authors should receive compensation.

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