Publishers won the first round in their fight with freelance writers when a federal judge ruled that existing copyright law allows newspapers and magazines to archive freelance stories electronically without paying additional fees to the authors. Ruling in the closely watched case, U.S. District Judge Sonia Sotomayor in New York said that while “modern developments” have changed the financial landscape in publishing, copyright laws written more than three decades ago still give publishers a broad right to re-create their publications in electronic form. She called it “a right then perceived to have only limited economic value, but a right that time and technology have since made precious.” Sotomayor said writers seeking new protections should look to Congress. The lawsuit was filed in 1993 by eight writers, including John Tasini, president of the National Writers Union, against the New York Times, Newsday, Time Inc. and the Atlantic Monthly. Also named as defendants were Mead Data Central Corp., publisher of the widely used Lexis-Nexis database, and University Microfilms, which produces CD-ROM versions of the publications. The ruling did not specifically address electronic publishing on the Internet. Tasini called the ruling “murky” and said the writers group is considering an appeal and whether to ask Congress to rewrite the law. Even before Sotomayor’s ruling, the lawsuit was considered a pivotal development in the conflict between writers and publishers as each side tries to define ownership rights in the expanding world of electronic media. Since the suit’s filing, most major newspapers and magazines have begun using contracts requiring writers to relinquish their electronic rights as a condition of having the article appear in print.
Freelancers Lose Bid in Electronic-Rights Suit