Seventeen years after nearly 3,000 freelance journalists filed a class-action lawsuit claiming copyright infringement by some of the country’s biggest publishers, the checks are finally in the mail.
The 2,500 writers who made it through the tortuous legal process will start receiving their pieces of a settlement totaling $9 million this week.
“We’ve been at the finish line for this lawsuit for a very long time, and so it is great that it’s finally happening,” said the writer James Gleick, the president of the Authors Guild and one of the named plaintiffs in the case. “But it’s also certainly a victory tinged with bitterness, because 17 years doesn’t make sense.”
The Authors Guild filed the suit — along with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union and 21 freelance writers named as class representatives — in 2001 after publishers licensed articles by freelancers to the electronic database Lexis/Nexis and other digital indexers without getting the writers’ approval. The publishers include The New York Times, Dow Jones, and Knight Ridder, as well as Reed Elsevier, the provider of Lexis/Nexis.
“For the Author’s Guild, this is our bread and butter — to make sure the authors and journalists get paid,” said Mary Rasenberger, the executive director of the Author’s Guild. “We’re small but we do punch above our weight.”
The suit came about shortly after the journalist Jonathan Tasini and five co-plaintiffs won a similar case in the Supreme Court.
“The argument that we made was the writers got paid for one-time use,” said Mr. Gleick who worked as a reporter and editor for The Times for 10 years. “We sued The Times because they sold copyrighted work by not just their staff, but also freelance writers. And the correct thing to do would have been to ask the freelance writers for permission and then pay the writers.”
The parties had seemingly come to an agreement in 2005, but negotiations stalled, over disagreement of how to handle plaintiffs who had not registered copyrights for their work, until a Supreme Court ruling, in 2010, held that the settlement proceedings could continue. The groups reached what seemed to be a final agreement in 2014, only to endure four more years of delays caused by 41,000 objections from the defendants and specific claims by the authors.
“There were very prolific freelance writers who made a living writing for many publications and were fighting for every dollar they got,” Mr. Gleick said. “This lawsuit was very bitter at times. But it really was unfair and it’s good that they are getting some money back.”
The writers will start receiving checks this week. Each plaintiff’s payout will vary depending on how many pieces he or she published and when they were appeared in print. A few will be paid in the six figures, according to the Authors Guild. The settlement also allows for additional reimbursements of nearly $4 million in attorney fees and close to $900,000 in administrative expenses.
Despite the 17-year wait, the freelancers who were part of the lawsuit may consider themselves lucky. Since the case went to court, it has become common practice for publishers to own the digital rights of the articles they publish.
“We can see in hindsight that this early battle contained hints of things to come,” Mr. Gleick said in a statement. “Then, as now, big tech companies had the idea that they could profit from new uses of creative work without including the creators. We scored a victory, but the effects weren’t long lasting, and writers continue to struggle.”
The New York Times declined to comment on the settlement.
Mr. Gleick said the checks may come as a surprise to some plaintiffs, adding, “Some people are going to be very happy this week.”