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Jewish World Review March 14, 2001 / 19 Adar, 5761

Jim Steinberg

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First music industry, now writers seek copyright protections on the Net

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- IN an Internet world where content is king, David Wallis is out to make sure he and other independent journalists don't become cyber-serfs whose labors get reproduced electronically without payment or permission.

"The Internet shouldn't be a duty-free zone ... when quality reporting takes time, money and effort," says Wallis, a veteran freelancer who founded Featurewell.com to broker electronic copyrights to dispatches by more than 300 top journalists.

Today, however, freelance writers are going to court much as the music industry did in its fight against Napster, the computer file-swapping program that is under court order to stop free downloading of copyrighted songs.

The writers' version of Napster tees up March 28 in the Supreme Court: In New York Times vs. Tasini, freelancers sued the Times, Newsday, Time Inc. and electronic databases for using freelancers' past work without royalty payments or permission.

The publishers won the first round, but a federal appeals court sided with freelance writers led by Jonathan Tasini, head of the 5,000-member National Writers Union.

"Cake for them, crumbs for us," Tasini says of the publishers.

Tasini and his colleagues say they are due copyright royalties when their work is resold electronically, and a three-judge panel of New York's 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Publishers say if they have to weed through all those past articles, they'll have to delete tens of thousands of stories from existing databases and destroy CD-ROM collections, a costly process that would corrupt journalism's first "rough draft of history."

Celebrity scholars Ken Burns, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough caution such consequences would "decrease access to convenient, cost-efficient and comprehensive" sources for research, while the computer industry says freelancers should stop griping when many writers would be happy to work free rather than be consigned to "the recycling bin."

Marybeth Peters, the register of copyrights, counsels against such dire consequences: "Ultimately," she says, the case is "about how authors should be compensated for the publishers' unauthorized use of their works, and not about whether the publishers must withdraw those works from their databases."

Even before the Supreme Court rules by summer, the fight has had real-world consequences:

- Denver database UnCover settled freelancers' back royalty claims for $7.25 million for posting their copyrighted work on Web sites.

- West Coast authors including the estate of the late Jessica Mitford, author of the classic, "The American Way of Dying," sued Internet databases and search engines for posting their copyrighted works without permission.

- A Florida federal judge sided with National Geographic over its 30-disc CD-ROM collection of magazines dating back to 1888 after freelance photographer Jerry Greenberg objected to inclusion of his copyrighted work.

- Six freelance writers took the Boston Globe to court after it told contributing writers that they would have to waive the right to claim copyright infringement for electronic reproduction of past work if they wanted future assignments.

-After Steve Brill's Contentville.com was accused of selling writers' work without permission, Brill's online magazine joined with Tasini's National Writers Union to act as a clearinghouse for getting the authors' OK.

From Napster to newspapers to the dot-com debacle, nobody has figured out yet how to make the Internet pay, although no one doubts its importance in the 21st century economy as a prime avenue for video, voice and data transmission.

As The New York Times editorialized about Napster, "The Internet is a revolutionary medium whose long-term benefits we are only beginning to fathom. But that is no reason to allow it to become a duty-free zone where people can plunder the intellectual property of others without paying for it."

"I couldn't have said it better," says Featurewell.com's Wallis, an occasional Times freelancer.

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