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Freelancers spurned in rights case

Freelance writers can have their work reprinted into electronic forms without their consent or compensation from publishers, a New York judge rules.

Freelance writers can have their work reprinted into electronic forms without their consent or compensation from publishers, a New York judge has ruled.

The case, brought by six freelance writers against a group of publishers that includes The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly magazine, involved copyright disputes.

Freelancers claimed that by reusing their products in a different medium, publishers were infringing on the Copyright Act of 1976, because pieces posted online were different than when published in print. Publishers can reproduce content as long as it is not heavily revised. Otherwise, they must ask permission from the original producer of the content and must pay for additional reproduction.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. District Court in New York City disagreed in her ruling yesterday, determining that archiving articles in databases was not an infringement of copyright.

"The electronic databases retain a significant creative element of the publisher defendants' collective works," she wrote.

The case was filed in 1993, when most of the complaints were about CD-ROM or other electronic archiving and when works were not so heavily adjusted to fit an electronic medium. For example, an article that runs in a newspaper may be adjusted to a multimedia format for a newspaper's Web site.

Sotomayor acknowledged this in her decision. "In certain circumstances, it is possible that the resulting work might be so different in character from 'that collective work' which preceded it that it cannot fairly be deemed a revision."

Because the case did not deal directly with online publishing and because publishing has changed so much since the case was filed, the questions surrounding copyright issues were not decided by this case.

Although the freelancers lost the case, Jonathan Tasini, lead plaintiff and president of the National Writers Union, is confident the decision will be overturned when the freelancers make their appeal.

"The judge's interpretation that this is simply a revision is just plain wrong," he said.

Despite ruling against them, the judge agreed with the freelancers on certain points, which gave them confidence. For example, Sotomayor rejected the arguments that electronic publishing was used simply as an archive and that publishers could automatically publish in different media if given permission in one.

The ruling does, however, signify the next step in a long-standing rift between publishers and freelancers. Freelancers have been complaining that publishers are turning into corporate moguls willing to sacrifice freelancers' rights for profits.

Sotomayor's decision and the case were a reflection of what's been happening in the newspaper and magazine industries, Tasini said. But, he added, "It's one skirmish and the war goes on."