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Freelancers protest outside Times building

Protestors are making it known that The New York Times' policy toward freelancers and reprinting articles on the Web needs to change.

NEW YORK--Shortly before noon EDT Thursday, a 12-foot, red-eyed rat was inflated in front of the venerable home of The New York Times.

The infamous Corporate Rats appear around the city during labor protests. This time, freelance writers were making it known that the Gray Lady's policy toward freelancers needs to change.

The protest comes shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that publishers must compensate freelancers for reprinting their articles on the Web and in electronic databases. In response, major publishers such as the Times and AOL Time Warner's Time Inc. began purging their electronic databases of freelance articles.

Now, protesters are asking The New York Times to sit down at the negotiating table.

"The New York Times' response has been coercion, intimidation and threats to freelancers telling them to sign away their rights if they want to keep their articles in the databases or if they want to work in the future," said Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers Union and one of the original six people who sued the publishers in 1993. "We're asking them to sit down and negotiate with us over the past and certainly how the writers are going to be treated over the future."

The protest strikes at the heart of an issue affecting all industries based on creative works, be it music, film or publishing. On one hand, technology and the Internet allow mass copying and mass distribution of content. But content creators and copyright holders demand they get paid for any use of their works, regardless of whether the content is distributed online or through traditional means.

The entertainment industry in particular has taken legal action against popular Internet distribution systems, such as Napster and Scour, that share creative works without compensation. Meanwhile, courts have generally ruled in favor of writers' rights over their works. A U.S. District Court recently rejected a preliminary injunction to halt an online publisher from selling digital versions of books. Essentially, book publishing deals did not extend to ownership of digital content.

"When the Napster issue came up they were all for defending copyrights," said Dian Killian, organizer for the National Writers Union. "They had editorials in The New York Times. When it comes to the freelancer, it's a very different story."

The New York Times says the agreements they struck with freelancers cover all rights, including electronic rights. The company also said the deletion of freelance material on its Web site was to prevent any future lawsuits, because the Supreme Court ruling opened the door for freelancers to litigate on the basis of willful infringement by the publisher.

Furthermore, The New York Times expressed disappointment that the ruling would limit public access to tens of thousands of articles in its database. Other publishers said the decision was a blow to researchers, historians and readers.

The New York Times is in discussions with the union to resolve the issue.

"We are talking to plaintiffs' lawyers to bring about a reasonable negotiated settlement," said Catherine Mathis, a Times spokeswoman.

Mathis added that any freelancer whose work was deleted could voluntarily ask the company to restore his or her works.

But for the freelancers standing behind the sky-blue police barriers on 43rd Street and Broadway, the issue boils down to making a living. Major themes of the protests were for better contracts and for a compensation system once articles are distributed on the Internet.

"Freelance writers need to make a living, and right now it's very close to impossible," said Mona Molarsky, a freelancer who has never written for The New York Times but is a union member. "The one possibility is to resell a story multiple times--not only to print sources but also to digital sources, because the pay they're giving to freelancers is very low."