US journalists win web copyright battle

A landmark US court ruling that gives compensation to freelance journalists whose work was illegally published online may have knock-on effects in Britain.

A group of American publishers including The New York Times, Newsday and Time Inc. was found to have sold on freelancers’ work for electronic archiving even though contractual rights were only signed for publication in print.

In a case brought by the US’ National Writers Union, they were ordered to pay back exra earnings for electronic use of stories as a penalty for breaking copyright law. A deadline for claimants seeking earnings expired in September.

“The ruling applies to US publications, not to UK publications – however, it could be cited in a UK court as an example,” said John Toner, national organiser for freelance members of Britain’s National Union of Journalists.

Retention of as many publication rights as possible is important for freelancers who want the flexibility to sell their work for different markets and different publishing media. The case of Tasini et al vs The New York Times et al found that publishers should not have sold on works to the Lexis/Nexis electronic library service.

“[The ruling] does affect UK-based freelances who write for US publications,” Mr Toner told “My advice to freelances with a potential claim in the US would be to register with the class action.

“UK newspapers frequently use copy online that was only commissioned for print. This is resolved by negotiation, by threatening legal action or by issuing proceedings.”