Supremes to hear Net rights case

WASHINGTON — There’s nothing unusual about journalists inside the U.S. Supreme Court. What is unusual is for scribblers to be pleading their own case before the Supremes, as is scheduled to happen Wednesday.

Freelance journalists will argue they should be paid royalties when publishers repost their works on Internet databases. Yes, publishers own the copyrights to the original stories, but not to subsequent electronic versions, the journos maintain.

High court gathering will pit the everyday freelancer against the country’s media might — no small challenge.

The scribes’ side — led by National Writers Union prexy Jonathan Tasini and five freelancers, and argued by labor lawyer Laurence Gold — is supported by the American Library Assn., the Assn. of Research Libraries and the U.S. Register of Copyrights. Also offering moral support are biographers James Gleick and Robert Massie.

The publishers’ bench will be shared by the New York Times Publishing Co., Newsday, the Times Inc. Magazine Co. and Lexis/Nexis. (Daily Variety‘s parent company, Cahners, is a division of Lexis/Nexis parent Reed Elsevier.)

Supporting pubs will be the National Geographic Society (represented by Kenneth Starr), historian David McCullough and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

U.S. copyright law basically states that publishers of “collected works,” such as periodicals, have the right to reproduce and distribute freelance works so as to preserve a record for researchers and the like.

The Internet should be no different than microfiche and microfilm, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe will tell the Supremes: Give freelancers copyright protection in the digital age, and databases will have to be destroyed on the spot, since it would be impossible to track down every writer and get permission.

Freelancers say this is a ruse to disguise the interests of big business. The Writers Union argues its cause is really no different from that of musicians who are trying to make sure their work isn’t pilfered by rogue Internet file-swapping services.

“What’s really ironic is that some of the very same newspapers involved here have had op-ed pieces against Napster and supporting the side of artists,” said Writers Union director of publishing rights clearinghouse Dian Killian. “When it concerns their own bottom line, this discourse very quickly stops.”

The case has been fought for seven years. The publishers won round one in August 1997 and the freelancers won on appeal in September 1999, setting up this final confrontation.

Scribes got good news on March 23 when the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that National Geographic violated the copyrights of a freelance photographer by republishing photos on a CD-ROM.

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