US Supreme Court says newspapers violated copyright online

Several publishers violated the copyrights' of their freelance writers by placing their articles in certain electronic databases, the US Supreme Court ruled this week.

Several publishers violated the copyrights of their freelance writers by placing their articles in certain electronic databases, the US Supreme Court ruled this week.

In a 7-2 vote upholding a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court rebuffed a group of publishers including the New York Times, Time, and Newsday. The publishers had licensed rights to copy and sell articles to several database operators including Lexis-Nexis, a division of Reed Elsevier. A group of freelance writers led by National Writers Union President Jonathan Tasini first filed suit against the publishers in 1993, charging that the publishers were violating their copyrights by placing their articles in the online databases.

A key point in the majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is the issue of what constitutes a "revision" of the initial collective work, which the US Copyright Act permits. The majority held that the archival databases in question are new collective works in their own right.

"The Database no more constitutes a 'revision' of each constituent edition than a 400-page novel quoting a sonnet in passing would represent a 'revision' of that poem," the majority opinion states.

Justice John Paul Stevens authored a dissenting opinion, which Justice Stephen Breyer joined.

Stevens also focused on the question of what qualifies as a revision, but maintained that the databases met the criteria.

"I see no compelling reason why a collection of files corresponding to a single edition of the New York Times, standing alone, cannot constitute a 'revision' of that day's New York Times," Stevens wrote. "No one doubts that the New York Times has the right to reprint its issues in Braille, in a foreign language, or in microform, even though such revisions might look and feel quite different from the original."

In her majority opinion, Ginsburg noted that the court's decision does not preclude the inclusion of freelance writers' works in electronic databases. The publishers and authors may reach an agreement allowing for the authors' works to remain in the databases, and the publishers "may draw on numerous models for distributing copyrighted works and remunerating authors for their distribution," she wrote.

The Supreme Court's opinion is available online here.

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