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Freelance Authors Turn Up the Heat with More Lawsuits; Major Database Providers Under Siege
Posted On August 21, 2000
After last week's report about a settlement between the National Writers Union (NWU; and Contentville ( over author royalties [See Paula J. Hane's August 14 NewsBreak] the pressure on database providers has escalated, with two new class-action lawsuits being filed on behalf of freelance authors whose copyrighted works have been sold online. We are clearly seeing the consequences of last fall's appellate court ruling in the Tasini case, as writers and organizations realize that a precedent has been set and monetary settlements are possible. It also reflects the present climate of concern for creative and intellectual property rights and what is sold or given away on the Internet, as in the Napster case.

On August 14, in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Gerald Posner and several other authors filed suit against Gale Group, Northern Light, Bell & Howell Information and Learning, Thomson Corp., and Thomson Business Information. The suit contends that the defendants systematically displayed, copied, sold and/or distributed copyrighted works of authors without authorization and in so doing, reaped substantial revenue and financial benefits. The suit seeks injunctive and monetary relief.

The National Writers Union was not involved in the suit, though the text of the complaint filed with the court states that the companies had been notified by the NWU about copyright infringements as early as 1994 (Gale), 1995 (Thomson), and 1998 (Northern Light). The formal grievance letters to Northern Light are available on the NWU site ( along with other information about the NWU's position and the Tasini case.

The NWU then released a statement applauding the authors filing the suit ( "We repeat to the industry what we said almost 1 year ago. Based on the landmark decision, virtually every media company may be engaged in systematic infringement. If we must, we will take steps to enforce that decision in other venues."

 "But our first choice is not to engage in a legal war that ties everyone up in court and creates an all-out war over rights. Such draconian actions serve only to create conflict and instability in the industry. We have devised a plan to end the confusion and establish a system whereby writers, publishers, and database services can continue to operate without disruption, but in a manner that is fair to all parties. Our plan incorporates a licensing system that already is in a cooperative business relationship with major publishers: Publication Rights Clearinghouse (PRC)."

The next day, August 15, The Authors Guild, Inc. (creator of The Authors Registry) filed suit in New York Federal District Court against five companies for unauthorized use of works dating back to 1978. The defendants named in the suit are Dialog, Reed Elsevier, which publishes the LEXIS-NEXIS database, Dow Jones Reuters Interactive (now Factiva), Bell & Howell, which offers the ProQuest online information system, and Thomson Corp., publisher of the Westlaw database.

 "Without our permission, and without paying us, these databases are offering consumers electronic access to our work and making millions from it," said lead plaintiff Letty Cottin Pogrebin, president of the Authors Guild and the author of eight books and hundreds of freelance articles. "Not only does this infringe our copyrights, it effectively allows big databases to reap the rewards of the Information Age while cutting writers off from the revenue streams that flow from our creative work product. Since appeals to publishers' sense of fairness have fallen on deaf ears, we have no choice but to seek justice from the databases and economic redress in the courts."

Joe Reynolds, president and CEO of Bell & Howell Information and Learning, said: "Until we have the opportunity to fully review the complaint, we are unable to respond to specific questions. We have an ongoing commitment to providing access to comprehensive, quality information to researchers and students. We are eager to see full resolution of copyright issues between freelance writers and publishers."

David Seuss, CEO of Northern Light, contends that the issue goes back to the contracts between authors and publishers. "Northern Light licenses its articles from suppliers that are experienced, reputable, and meticulous in their respect for copyright and intellectual property rights. These suppliers warrant to us that they have the rights to the articles." Northern Light uses 110 suppliers for its Special Collection of documents, among them Bell & Howell, Gale, and Thomson.

I'd guess we haven't seen the end of these class-action lawsuits. Or, maybe the parties involved will decide it's easier and better to solve the problem with a settlement (as in the UnCover case), instead of litigate for years, as happened in the Tasini case.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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