The Copyright Lawsuit That Took 17 Years to Settle

Attribution @Samchills
Attribution @Samchills


Several thousands of freelance writers are rejoicing at the fact that they will receive a total of more than $9 million as compensation for copyright infringement by electronic databases, newspapers, and magazine publishers which include, Dow Jones, The New York Times, Lexis/Nexis, Reed Elsevier, and Knight Ridder.

In 2001, 3,000 freelance writers initially joined together with the Author’s Guild, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union, and also 21 freelance writers who were named as class representatives, to file a lawsuit against multiple publishers after the publishers licensed articles by freelancers to the electronic database Lexis/Nexis and other digital indexers without getting the writers’ approval. Over 600,000 articles were in issue throughout the course of this lawsuit.

The judgment award comes as a hopeful close to the final chapter in a battle that began 17 years ago, when the Authors Guild commenced a class-action suit on behalf of the freelancers who had been paid only for a one-time use of their articles, but then saw their work swept into electronic databases without any further compensation. Mary Rasenberger, the Guild’s executive director, stated that “[t]his has been a long road, and we are glad to finally see freelance writers compensated for the unauthorized uses of their articles . . . . Getting real money into the pockets of real writers is always satisfying.”

It seemed that the lawsuit was coming to a close in 2005, when the parties had seemingly come to an agreement, but then negotiations stalled over disagreement of how to handle plaintiffs who had not registered copyrights for their work. Then a Supreme Court ruling in 2010, held that the settlement proceedings could continue. The groups again reached what seemed to be a final settlement agreement in 2014, only to struggle for four more years’ worth of delays which were caused by approximately 41,000 objections from the defendants and specific claims by the authors.

The writers are supposed to start receiving checks this coming week. Each plaintiff’s payout will vary depending on how many pieces of work they published, as well as when they appeared in print. The settlement agreement also allows for additional reimbursements of nearly $4 million in attorney fees and close to $900,000 in administrative expenses.

Despite the extremely long wait, the freelancers who were part of the lawsuit may consider themselves lucky. Since the case went to court, it has now become common practice for publishers to own the digital rights of the articles they publish. Even with this specific lawsuit, out of the approximately 3,000 writers who were a part of the original suit, only around 2,500 made it through this onerous legal process.

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