NEW YORK, NY—April 30, 2018
The Authors Guild is pleased to report that several thousand freelance writers are receiving a total of more than $9 million as compensation for copyright infringement by electronic database, newspaper, and magazine publishers, including Dow Jones, The New York Times, and Knight Ridder.
The payments close the final chapter in a saga that began 17 years ago, when the Authors Guild initiated a class-action suit on behalf of freelancers who had been paid for only one-time use of their articles and saw their work swept into electronic databases without further compensation.
“This has been a long road, and we are glad to finally see freelance writers compensated for the unauthorized uses of their articles,” said Mary Rasenberger, the Guild’s executive director. “Getting real money into the pockets of real writers is always satisfying.”
The historic copyright dispute, involving two different rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, began at a critical point in the transition to digital publishing that has since transformed the industry. Newspapers and magazines that had barely begun to consider publishing online themselves licensed entire archives to database companies like LexisNexis (now a division of Reed Elsevier), ProQuest Information and Learning, and EBSCO Industries.
The Authors Guild filed the suit in 2001, along with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union, and 21 freelance writers named as class representatives. The class-action suit grew out of an earlier action brought by Jonathan Tasini and several other writers, which led to the Supreme Court ruling in the freelancers’ favor.
More than 3,000 writers filed claims for 600,000 articles. The final number of writers receiving checks is 2,494; some others had their claims rejected for a variety of reasons after publishers submitted challenges.
After long negotiation, a settlement was reached in 2005. Challenges kept the case in the courts for another decade. One of those came from a group of authors whose claims were treated separately because they had not registered their copyrights. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2010 that the settlement could proceed, and those freelancers, too, are receiving checks this week.
The landscape has changed dramatically in the intervening years. Publishing online, newspapers and magazines now routinely require freelancers to surrender their electronic rights.
“We can see in hindsight that this early battle contained hints of things to come,” said James Gleick, president of the Authors Guild and one of the original named plaintiffs. “Then, as now, big tech companies had the idea that they could profit from new uses of creative work without including the creators. We scored a victory, but the effects weren’t long lasting, and writers continue to struggle.”
“Hardly anyone but lawyers remembers LexisNexis now,” he said. “In its place we have a new generation of search engines and aggregators, wielding great power, imposing their own terms on the publishers themselves.”
Final approval of the long-negotiated and much-revised settlement came in June, 2014. The payout was further delayed when publishers filed 41,000 objections for specific claims, which had to be resolved through investigation and more negotiation.
The total payout is $9,456,000. The publishers were also responsible for paying attorneys’ fees and reimbursement of costs totaling $3,906,000 and claims administration expenses of $889,000.
A few writers will receive payouts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; the amounts depend on the original fees for each article and also, because of the technicalities of copyright law, whether and when the individual works at issue were registered with the Copyright Office.
The Authors Guild is the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization for writers, supporting working writers and protecting authors' rights since 1912.
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The Authors Guild