March 1996

US mags pay up for e-rights

HARPER'S MAGAZINE has become the first publication in the US -- and possibly the world -- to announce that it will make across-the-board back payments for past use of freelance articles in electronic databases. Harper's president and publisher John R MacArthur told the American Society of Journalists and Authors that the first cheques, to 67 contributors, would be mailed early in February.

The cheques, totalling $1,629.34, cover part of the retroactive payments due to Harper's freelances. Payments from $2.72 to $150.36, he said, represent these writers' share of just 18 months of CD-ROM earnings from the Information Access Company, the largest of several database compilers doing business with Harper's.

Several thousand dollars in further back payments were due to be made in February.

The Registry is the not-for-profit royalty collecting and licensing agency formed last year by US writers' groups to smooth publishers' bookkeeping chores and make it easier to disburse such payments to writers. It is backed by major US writers' groups, plus the NUJ and nearly 100 literary agencies, and will represent more than 50,000 writers.

Harper's has also agreed to share all future electronic database royalties with its contributors, to be paid through the Authors Registry.

The publisher of New York and US Seventeen magazines has promised $28,000 in back payments to freelances who contributed in 1993-95. It is, however, pressing freelances to hand over all rights in the future.

Publishers Weekly has announced plans to "share the revenues from electronic use in any form", past and future, through the Authors Registry.

The US news is not all this good. At the end of 1995, newspapers across the country, including the Knight-Ridder group, posted "all rights" contracts to freelances. Some are explicitly inspired by the New York Times rights grab. Dan Carlinsky of the ASJA notes, however, that "The copycat publishers appear to have missed the news that the Times has backed down since its summertime announcement that all rights in all freelance work would henceforth be turned over to the paper. The policy was never instituted across the board; it appears it never will be."

In the lawsuit against the New York Times and others, supported by the National Writers Union, a pre-trial hearing is due in the late Spring. When the case wakes up after months in legal limbo, it may make the newspapers think again -- as it clearly already has the magazines.

No union can, of course, bring such a lawsuit on its own behalf; it needs warm and copyright-owning bodies in court.

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