The Magazine

Freelance Writers of the World, Unite!

You have nothing to lose but your copyright fees.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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I OPENED MY MAIL A couple of weeks ago and was surprised to discover that I'm a plaintiff in a lawsuit. The name of the case is In re Literary Works in Electronic Databases Copyright Litigation, and it's been pending since 2000 in the federal district court in Manhattan. According to the legal document I received, I'm a freelance writer (which I am), and I've got a beef against such outfits as Dow Jones (I've written for the Wall Street Journal and Barron's), the New York Times Co. (that's a newspaper I've never written for), and Lexis/Nexis, a major electronic database that collects and distributes articles from many newspapers and magazines. The legal document informed me that I am quite riled up because the newspapers and magazines I've written for have "violated the copyrights of freelance authors" by licensing our works, after publication, to electronic databases such as Lexis/Nexis "without the authors' permission" during the 1980s and early 1990s. The document further informed me that a vast array of media companies, including many not named as defendants in the lawsuit, had put together a settlement fund of up to $18 million from which we writers would be compensated for this appalling violation of our copyrights. Now that's real money.

Reading along further in the settlement document, I uncovered certain aspects of the lawsuit that made me uncomfortable. This class action, like all federal class actions, was filed by a number of individual writers who were deemed to be "representative plaintiffs" who could speak for the God knows how many tens of thousands of the rest of us freelance writers in America. Not many of the 23 names on the "representative plaintiffs" list were familiar to me, but some of the names I did know filled me with foreboding. One was that of the novelist E.L. Doctorow, best known for an anti-Bush graduation-speech rant at Hofstra University last year that nearly got him booed offstage, and also for his novel The Book of Daniel (later a movie), which argued that the convicted and executed atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were actually innocent. Since, along with the noted historians Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, I believe the Rosenbergs were guilty as sin, I wondered how "representative" of me and my views Doctorow could be. Two other names I recognized belonged to the radical feminists Andrea "Sex Is Rape" Dworkin (recently deceased) and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a onetime big cheese and pal of Gloria Steinem at Ms. magazine. Unfortunately, anti-patriarchy isn't my thing.

Then came what might be called the "money paragraph" of the document, the section that explained how the $18 million pot would be divvied up. The settlement sets up three classes of articles written by freelancers for newspapers or magazines. The first consists of works registered with the U.S. Copyright Office within three months of publication. The authors of those works win fairly big: from $875 to $1,500, depending on how frequently they wrote for any one publication. Next come those who waited, presumably until after the suit was filed, to rush to the Copyright Office, as long as they got there before December 31, 2002. Those folks collect the greater of $150 or 12.5 percent of the original sales price of their articles. Then come the plebes: those who didn't bother to register their works at all. They collect anywhere from $60 per article all the way down to $5 (or possibly less, as the settlement calls for steep discounting with respect to articles published before 1995). Before they can receive their money, writers in all three categories must file a "proof of claim" for each article by September 30 of this year stating its title and publication date and the amount for which it was sold. In return, they sign away their right to any future compensation for electronic rights.