A federal appeals court yesterday threw out a hard-fought agreement between publishers and freelance writers to pay the writers for electronic reproduction of their work.
In a 2-to-1 decision, an appellate panel ruled that the courts had no jurisdiction over the copyright dispute and that a lower court erred in accepting the writers’ lawsuit and approving the settlement.
People on both sides of the dispute said it was unclear what would happen next — whether the decision would be appealed, a new suit filed, or a new agreement negotiated.
“The decision is an outrage, and I hope it’s appealable to the Supreme Court,” said Gerard Colby, president of the National Writers Union, and a plaintiff.
In 2001, the United States Supreme Court ruled that digital reproduction of newspaper, magazine and other articles without the writers’ permission violated their copyrights. Publishers removed such articles from their digital archives and began requiring freelancers to explicitly cede electronic rights to their work.
But that did not resolve claims for monetary damages for the earlier violations. In Federal District Court in Manhattan, Judge George B. Daniels allowed a class-action suit by writers and their organizations; without that crucial step, each writer determined to win payment would have had to sue individually.
The suit named major publishers and archive services, including the Thomson Corporation, The New York Times Company, Dow Jones & Company, the LexisNexis unit of the Reed Elsevier Group and the Tribune Company.
After years of negotiation, the companies and the writers reached a settlement in March, 2005, which the judge approved. It provided for mostly modest payments to freelancers, and capped the publishers’ payout at $18 million.