[Freelance]

Belgian hacks win on e-rights

BELGIAN JOURNALISTS have won a key court case over re-use of their work in electronic media.

The journalists' union AGJPB, the collecting society SAJ, the multimedia authors' association SOFAM and 20 individuals sued Central Station, a joint internet publishing operation set up by major Belgian newspapers (see Freelance September 1996). Central Station was charging subscription fees to access articles.

On 16 October 1996 the court ordered Central Station to cease any electronic publication made "without the explicit consent of their authors or of the latter's authorised representatives," on pain of a fine of BF100,000 (UKpound 2000) per article. The publishers were also ordered not to distribute articles without by-lines, or face the same penalty.

Belgian law on authors' rights is substantially stronger than UK copyright law. But judge for yourself how desperate the publishers' lawyers were. It was agreed that they did not have the authors' signatures giving permission for reproduction of any articles. They then argued, among other things:

  • That the unions had no legal standing to bring the case: dismissed.
  • That authors themselves init-iated the process of publishing their work on the internet by submitting it to the publishers' computers, and that publication by Central Station therefore involved no reproduction: dismissed.
  • That electronic publishing was, in the legal jargon, an act of "distribution" and not of "communication to the public": dismissed.
  • That the journalists gave implicit consent to electronic publication: ruled that there is a distinction between journalists under contract and freelances.
  • That Central Station amounted to a part of the newspapers, so that no permission was necessary: dismissed.
  • That the Berne Conventions - the international law on authors' rights - allows for newspapers to reproduce articles from other newspapers with credit, and that Central Station was equivalent to this act: dismissed.

Central Station could have negotiated with journalists, to pay them properly. Instead, the publishers chose to close it down.

Meanwhile, we await a verdict in the Tasini case in the USA, where the President of the National Writers Union and six others are suing The New York Times, Time, Inc., Newsday, Inc., The Atlantic Monthly, The Mead Corporation (Nexis-Lexis) and University Microfilms Inc., alleging unauthorised re-selling of articles through electronic databases.

And we hear that in mid-November the German organisation FreeLens and 80 of its members sued the magazine Spiegel, alleging theft of photographs in CD-ROM editions.

Mike Holderness


Jan/Feb 1997

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