A group of California freelance writers is suing Knight-Ridder Information, alleging that its Web- and fax-based article delivery services violated the authors' copyrights.
Two KRI companies, the Carl Corporation and the Uncover Company, also are named in the lawsuit.
Uncover lets users search an online database containing more than 7 million journal and article briefs. Upon request, Uncover will fax them within 24 hours, which costs $10 to $11.50. Other deals let libraries and other institutions download the material straight from the Net using a password.
The freelance writers in the case charge that Uncover is illegally selling their copyrighted works, and has not paid them royalties for past sales of their articles and book excerpts.
Plaintiff's include Joan Ryan of Ross, a San Francisco Chronicle writer who also wrote the book Making Headlines; Jim Tunney of Carmel, a former National Football League referee who writes about his experiences in Impartial Judgment; Lyn Hejinian of Berkeley and Ronald Silliman of Pennsylvania, who cowrote Lennigrad; and Arlie Russell Hochschild, a U.C. Berkeley professor who wrote The Time Bind.
"They are selling copy after copy, and we believe they are generating millions of dollars of revenue in doing so. They didn't have an agreement with any of the plaintiffs," said Daniel Reidy, the writers' San Francisco attorney, who is seeking class action status for the lawsuit, which he filed last Wednesday.
"We believe there are numerous incidences where they've gone ahead and sold articles without any licenses whatsoever," he added. He also accuses Uncover of entering into licensing agreements with magazines for the use of the entire publication, which is legal, but then selling individual articles, in violation of copyright laws.
Knight-Ridder, the parent company of KRI, could not be reached immediately for comment. Earlier this month, Knight-Ridder announced the $420 million sale of KRI to M.A.I.D., a London-based online business information company. The sale is expected to be finalized in November.
The case is reminiscent of Tasini vs. The New York Times, a case decided earlier this year in which six freelance writers sued the newspaper and other publishers on grounds that they were not asked permission when their articles were made available by the publications to online databases, such as Lexis-Nexis.
Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. District Court in New York City ruled that the publishers did not have to get writers' approval when submitting their entire periodicals to electronic databases.
"The ruling would not apply to a site that 'picks and pulls' information from magazines," said Jonathan Tasini, lead plaintiff in the case and president of the National Writers Union. He is appealing the ruling.
Legal experts say the case filed by Reidy has a good chance if he can prove that Uncover sold articles without licensing agreements with the writers or magazines that published their articles.
"It is entirely possible that the service didn't have licensing agreements to distribute all the material," said Eric Schlachter, an attorney at Cooley Godward who represents Internet companies. "On its face, that is a flat-out copyright violation."