In its first suggestion that the marketing of freelance writers' magazine articles on full-text electronic databases involves issues of creators' rights, the corporate parent of Information Access Company (IAC) has acknowledged that it can track and account for the resale of works listed on its databases.

The statement -- by the supplier of fee-based article delivery services at CompuServe, Dialog, Dow Jones News Retrieval and many other online sites -- came in a February 2 [1995] letter by Jerrell W. Shelton, president and chief executive officer of Thomson Business Information, to Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers Union (NWU). The Thomson Corporation, based in Canada, recently purchased IAC from Ziff Communications for $465 million. A demand by nearly 100 writers for an accounting of the electronic resale of their magazine articles on IAC databases is part of "Operation Magazine Index," a project of the NWU Journalism Campaign that was launched last fall and highlighted in a New York Times op-ed page essay by bestselling author Nicholson Baker.

In his letter to Tasini, Shelton wrote that "if your members have an issue regarding redistribution of materials created by them, they should contact their publishers directly. We remain prepared to support our providers with whatever information we can (including transaction-based data) in order for them to abide by their financial obligations to their authors."

IAC thus became the second major database operator to confirm the feasibility of transaction-based accounting. The CARL Corporation has already initiated discussions with the NWU for a creators' royalty system at UnCover, a database of articles from thousands of popular magazines and academic journals.

"The implications of the IAC/Thomson letter are clear," said NWU assistant director Irvin Muchnick. "It's been obvious for some time that corporations with the ability to bill an individual home computer user for downloading an article also have the ability to determine how many times each article is ordered and to ensure that a fair share of the profits goes back to the writer. IAC has simply confirmed what CARL told us -- though, unlike CARL, IAC has so far not taken the constructive next step of sitting down with us to design a sensible system that acknowledges the interests of all parties, including creators and consumers, in the new electronic networks."

Muchnick said the NWU would continue to press for a dialogue with IAC/Thomson. "In the meantime, we advise writers to take this information back to the publishers with which IAC claims to have licensing agreements. Freelance writers routinely grant only First North American Print Rights to their original publishers, so any such licensing agreements that do not seek their permission are illegitimate. And now we have also verified that the compensation question can be addressed by the same technology that makes the creation of this new marketplace possible in the first place."

NWU president Tasini is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against a group of major publishers and database operators, including the New York Times Company and Mead Data Central, the operator of Lexis/Nexis. That case, involving similar claims of illegal redistribution of freelancers' works on databases without their permission and without their being compensated, is expected to go to trial later this year in federal court in New York.

The NWU, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers, represents 4,000 freelance writers in all genres. For more information about "Operation Magazine Index," send an e-mail message.

[CCC home]

This statement by the National Writers'Union reproduced with permission.

[Media Unions home]

[NUJ.LFB home]

Last modified: 3 May 1997
Send design comments

© 1997 contributors; moral rights asserted

[CCC home]
Copyright index