$18M for freelances?
Not enough, say some

ON JULY 28 New York District Judge George M. Daniels is due to rule on a proposed "class action" settlement that would pay up to US$18 million to freelances whose work was illegally supplied by 36 major publishers to 13 online database companies.

Many of the big names in business seem prepared to cough up to settle the claim. The New York Times company, whose defeat in the Supreme Court of the USA by the National Writers' Union, the union for US freelances, is in. So are Gannett (owners of NewsQuest in the UK), Knight-Ridder and Reed-Elsevier, operator of the Lexis/Nexis online information database.

But the motion that Judge Daniels will hear is one to dismiss the settlement. [Technical correction: he'll be considering the parties' motion for final approval of the settlement, along with objections.] And it is spearheaded by a freelance writer. Wrestling specialist Irvin Muchnick was an assistant director of the National Writers' Union until 1997. While working for the NWU he founded the Publication Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) to collect a percentage of the income of web and database publications for their contributors. He helped initiate the lawsuit Ryan versus CARL Corp. that in 2000 won $7.5 million for writers.

Muchnick says the "size of the authors' restitution fund is too small, the provisions for notifying affected writers are inadequate, and the release of future claims against publishers... is so broad and vague that, if approved by the court, there will be no ability to use new technologies to level the playing field in 21st century publishing." In other words, it would rule out PRC-style "syndication" payments. He notes that in 2001 the American Society of Journalists and Authors newsletter reported that an NWU study "estimates that media firms owe anywhere from $2.5 billion to $600 billion to freelancers".

The proposal is for a sliding scale of compensation, from $1500 for each of the first fifteen articles that a writer lodged with the US Register of Copyrights (a procedure that currently costs $30 per article) down to $5 for unregistered articles originally licensed for $250 or less. If the total of claims exceeds $18 million, those smaller claims will be the first to go. Notionally 65 per cent of an author's claim is compensation for past abuse and 35 per cent buys is a licence to continue to sell the article online. Lexis-Nexis charges individual users an average of $3 to view one article once.

Gerard Colby, president of the National Writers Union, welcomed the proposal in March, saying "Individual awards for individual articles could add up to big money for writers who had more than one article published electronically without their consent... This settlement underscores the fundamental importance of the Constitution's copyright clause and proclaims that the rights of writers and artists to own their own creations and to earn a living from them must be respected - even by the nation's most powerful media corporations."

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