Yes, you have rights

THE SUPREME Court of the USA ruled on 25 June in favour of freelance writers' right to negotiate re-use of their work. And on 12 June the highest court in France ruled that, yes, magazines do need permission to re-use photographs.

Of course, these are defensive victories. Both courts expressed - in the deepest judicial code - their contempt for attempts to overturn the laws that protect individual creators against rapacious publishers.

The hard bits comes now: first, persuading all colleagues to resist rights-grabbing contracts. Then negotiating fair terms.

The US case goes back to December 1993, when National Writers Union president Jonathan Tasini and nine colleagues sued the New York Times, the LEXIS/NEXIS database company and others for distributing and re-selling their work without permission or payment. In August 1997 a New York court ruled against the writers. In September 1999 the regional Appeal Court ruled sharply for the six writers still on the case.

The publishers appealed to the US Supreme Court. They argued, desperately, that to give freelances their rights in law would create "holes in the historical record". On 25 June 2001 the Court - voting 7 to 2 - upheld freelance journalists' rights. It noted rather pointedly that the New York Times was quite free to maintain the integrity of its online archive - by paying freelances.

And the French case began when freelance photographer Jean-Michel Rillon sued Capital Media for re-using a picture of his, in the same publication it first appeared in. The Appeal Court of Versailles ruled for the publisher - on 1 April 1999. That judgement hinged on a very special interpretation of the phrase "publication in more than one newspaper or periodical". Wrong, said the Supreme Court. Go back to Versailles, but with different, sensible, judges and work out damages.

  • Also in June, the National Writers Union agreed with the radical publication In These Times that freelances will get 100% extra for electronic re-use. Details soon.
Last modified: 24 August 2001 - © 2001 contributors
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