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Writers groups pen online licenses

The National Writers Union and Contentville launch a Web-based licensing system to compensate writers for their published work.

    The National Writers Union and Contentville on Wednesday launched a Web-based licensing system to compensate writers for their published work.

    The joint Publications Rights Clearinghouse will let writers register the copyright for their work and receive royalty payments for pieces sold on Steve Brill's Contentville, which provides books, magazines, e-books and other literary works. The NWU and Contentville said writers will receive 30 percent of the fees paid by Contentville customers.

    Neil Smith, an intellectual property lawyer, said the deal is a good sign. Publishers and writers should be ironing out contract agreements, he said, that include terminology that relates to the digital medium.

    "The fairest way to get the writers compensated is to have some sort of organization that either monitors (work) and counts it or has some rational basis for apportioning royalties," said Smith, who works for law firm Howard Rice Nemorovski Canady Falk & Rabkin. "Now that everybody knows there's an issue (of copyright infringement), for the future this should be taken care of by agreement between the freelance writers, artist and whoever they work for."

    The announcement comes as freelance writers are suing newspaper and magazine publishers for copyright infringement in a closely watched Supreme Court case, which is expected to be heard next week. The writers--who filed the suit against The New York Times Co., Newsday, Time Inc., Lexis/Nexis and University Microfilms--said that republishing their articles electronically violates their copyrights and that writers should be compensated for the electronic use of copyrighted works.

    The NWU's Jonathan Tasini, a lead plaintiff in the case, said his agreement with Contentville begins to build a system that will be similar to that of the American Society of Composer, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which collects and distributes royalties for songwriters and music publishers.

    "Steve Brill is working with us to kick open a door to a new set of ground rules to establish fair and stable relationships between creators, consumers and distributors," Tasini said in a statement. "We hope and expect that the system will be a model for other publishers to address the significant liabilities they have incurred as the result of the unauthorized sale of copyrighted material."

    Under the licensing system, writers will also have access to a database of articles to search and identify their work. Brill, who founded Brill Media Holdings and runs Brill's Content magazine in addition to Contentville, said they have made the archives of some 2,000 publications searchable so far.

    "By setting up the (licensing system), Jonathan and the NWU have established a framework and a system that is both fair and practical," Brill said in a statement. "It's not only what we should be doing under the law, but it's also the right thing to do."

    Wednesday's deal is not the first attempt to compensate writers for online publication. In January, online bookseller Barnes& created a new division that will pay authors a royalty fee of 35 percent of the retail sale price on works sold through its online store or its affiliate network. Authors will also receive 50 percent of the net revenue received by Barnes& from sales through third parties.