The U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it will hear the much-publicized case of Tasini et al vs. The New York Times et al (Docket No. 00-201). In September 1999, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Second Circuit, in New York, reversed a lower-court decision and ruled that it's copyright infringement for a publisher to put a freelancer's work online or reuse or resell it without explicit permission. The case is the landmark lawsuit, charging copyright violation, brought by Jonathan Tasini and members of the National Writers Union (NWU) against The New York Times Co.; Newsday, Inc.; Time, Inc.; LEXIS-NEXIS; and University Microfilms, Inc. (UMI, now Bell & Howell Information and Learning).
The case has thrown the information industry into turmoil and prompted additional lawsuits by freelance writers. [See Paula J. Hane's August 21, 2000 NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=17765.] It has also pushed some content providers like Contentville and UnCover to negotiate settlements [see Hane's August 14, 2000 NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=17770].
Following the Supreme Court announcement on November 6, the NWU sent out "An Open Letter to the Publishing Industry" that renewed its appeal to media owners that they engage in a discussion aimed at resolving the significant liabilities they face from past infringement of authors' works. "While we are prepared for a lengthy legal battle that we believe we will win, such a battle is not our first choice. Tying everyone up in court and creating an all-out war over rights are unacceptable. Such draconian actions will serve only to create conflict and instability in the industry." The NWU is promoting its Publication Rights Clearinghouse as a solution to the content licensing issue.
In her November column for Information Today, Barbara Quint, a freelance writer herself, agonized about the problems in the Tasini case. She said: "The pennies authors could get for online use don't justify the disastrous burden that counting those pennies and mailing them to authors would create for publishers, aggregators, search services, and even professional searchers. It would be like mailing in a claim for a 10-cent rebate—the stamp costs 33 cents."
Quint continued: "Worse than the actual dollars involved, the removing of items not covered would dismantle the existing full-text structures and completely inhibit attempts to further expand the body of published material available off-line. Already we hear stories from major aggregators about publishers withdrawing content that's been available for years or, at least, about rescinding permission for new spinoff products."
Watch for a major article by Carol Ebbinghouse in the January issue of Searcher magazine that explores the issues and ramifications of the case from all perspectives—the authors, the publishers, the aggregators and search services, and researchers. And, watch for NewsBreaks that will continue to report on developments in this case and related issues.