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Freelance Writers Win in Supreme Court Case

In a 7-2 judgment, the high court said freelance writers have control over whether work sold to print publications can be placed in electronic archives — including the Internet.

Now media companies like The New York Times — a defendant in the suit — must obtain permission before freelance work can be posted on the Web.

Six freelance writers, led by National Writers’ Union President Jonathan Tasini, sued the Times, Newsday, Time Inc., and others in 1993, saying filing free-lancers’ stories on-line and in subscription-based archives like Lexis-Nexis violate authors’ copyrights.

Media companies argued electronic reproduction fit within their right to revise work appearing in their publications. Copyright law allows publishers make such revisions without the author’s permission.

But the court ruled today the law “does not authorize the copying at issue here.”

“Both the print publishers and the electronic publishers, we rule, have infringed the copyrights of the freelance authors,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

Justices Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens dissented.

A federal trial judge in New York ruled for the publishers in 1997, but a U.S. appeals court in 1999 decided in the writers’ favor.

Unlike full-time members of publication staffs, freelance writers sell their work on an individual basis. They argued reprinting of their stories without their permission or specific compensation would limit their livelihood.

“If the Supreme Court does not affirm our case, it essentially means freelance creators, writers, photographers, illustrators will not be able to make a living in the digital age,” Tasini said in March.

Bruce Keller, an attorney for the Times and other media companies, said his clients would work with freelancers to amend contracts should the high court rule in the authors’ favor.

“If we are wrong, we will fix the problem on a going forward basis by contract,” he said. “The real issue, however, will be with respect to all of the articles that are [already] in the database.”

Today’s decision will mostly affect work published years ago, before contracts specifically addressed Internet and other electronic usage.

Media companies will now have to decide whether to negotiate with freelancers regarding previously archived material or remove the material entirely.