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