March 1995

Hope across the water

IT IS ESTABLISHED practice in the UK publishing industry that where a freelance produces a piece of writing, a photo or an illustration, what they are selling is a license to use the work in one publication - the standard phrase is 'First British Serial Rights'.

But colleagues outside the UK are shocked at the fuzziness of our legal position.

In the USA, the National Writers' Union is suing Mead Data Central, the New York Times and others over (allegedly) illegal distribution of its members' material in electronic databases. The wheels of justice are grinding at their accustomed speed - but the campaign is having interesting effects.

On February 2 the Information Access Company wrote to the NWU confirming that they can supply detailed information on electronic access to articles. IAC, now owned by Thomson Business Information, supplies articles electronically to CompuServe, Dialog, Dow Jones News Retrieval and many other online sites.

Another major supplier, the CARL Corporation, had already confirmed to the NWU that it could supply this information.

There is thus no argument against proper electronic syndication payments - other than the transfer of some wealth from publishers to creators.

Time Inc. is reported to offer its contributors a straight choice for syndication on paper: double the rate for all rights, or $US75 per re-use.

In Europe, there is an intriguing legal argument that the UK government is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in its treatment of creators. Some of us are taking a case (as individual authors) to the European Court of Human Rights.

There is also an argument that the publishers' pressure on freelances could constitute 'Abuse of a Dominant Position' in European law. An administrative enquiry into this is being investigated.

We do not want to involve the publishers in legal proceedings which would cost them a great deal (and us very little). We do not put our faith entirely in processes which would take years to complete.

We suggest to the publishers, though, that it is not in their interest to base their business plans on arrangements which are likely to turn out to be illegal and void.

It would seem to be in both our interests to negotiate now.

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