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Publisher’s rights under fire in court

Writers demand fees for Internet, database use

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court grilled the country’s media heavies and a group of freelance writers on Wednesday about whether publishers should be forced to secure a freelance writer’s permission before reposting an article on electronic databases.

The justices repeatedly questioned why posting stories on such databases is any different from a publisher’s existing right to make a freelancer’s work part of a catalog.

Current copyright law states that publishers of “collected works,” such as a major daily or news magazine, have the right to reproduce freelance works to preserve a historical record.

Writers want their fee

Labor lawyer Laurence Gold, representing the National Writer’s Union and a small group of freelance writers, said the Internet cannot be compared to yesterday’s catalog, since it is entirely different in scope and reach. He said freelance writers deserve a royalty fee if their works are resold to such databases as Lexis/Nexis.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, arguing for the New York Times, Newsday and the Times Inc. Publishing Co. and Lexis/Nexis, told the high court that an Internet database is really no different from a microfilm.

He said the fate of databases would be threatened if publishers had to go back and secure permission from hundreds of freelancers. Barring that, databases would have to be purged.

“We’re going to have a serious problem with our kids doing homework and professors finding out what happened in the middle of the 20th century,” Tribe said.

The court is expected to rule on the case by summer.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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