Freelances hail US court's landmark copyright ruling


Journalists’ unions have welcomed the landmark judgment by the US Supreme Court that gives freelances the right to decide whether material they sold for print can be used in electronic form.

The victory over the New York Times group and other publishers was hailed by the NUJ, which said: "Copyright is now a worldwide issue and the judgment from the highest court in the US, the country where much of the global media is concentrated, has worldwide significance. It should lead to tens of thousands journalists getting a fair reward for their work."

Aidan White, general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, described the verdict as "a stunning victory for writers and a blow to those big media companies which have tried to steal away from creators their fundamental rights".

In the US, newspaper and magazine publishers have already started a mass purge of their electronic files. In the wake of the ruling, they are removing thousands of articles and stories that are affected by the court’s pro-freelance decision. Most of the material dates back to before 1993 when a group of US freelances originally filed their suit against a number of leading publications.  While US freelances are hailing the court’s decision, publishers say it is a  blow to public interest. Arthur Sulzberger, chairman of the New York Times, described it as a "sad and difficult process – everyone is a loser".

At the NY Times, work has already started on removing from its database about 115,000 stories and articles by 27,000 freelance writers.

Time Inc is also planning to cull freelance material from its magazine files, including those of Time and Fortune. The LA Times, Chicago Tribune and Newsday, all of which were defendants in the case, are still assessing the decision’s impact.

Also affected is Lexis-Nexis, a unit of Anglo-Dutch company Reed Elsevier, which was also a defendant.

Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers’ Union, which brought the original suit, has suggested that the publishers conduct negotiations with his group to rationalise the situation – in the same way as the music industry has done with musicians and song writers. "It’s time for the media industry to pay creators their fair share. Let’s sit down and negotiate," he declared.

Publishers, however, claim his proposal is impractical and unworkable. Some US publishers are planning to lobby Congress to modify the country’s copyright laws so that contracts automatically cover both digital and print versions of a writer’s work.

By Jeffrey Blyth and Jon Slattery

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