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After 25 years, online violations pay out

IT HAS BEEN a long haul. Back in 1993 Jonathan Tasini, then President of the US freelances' union the National Writers Union, and others sued the New York Times for selling work online - and on CD-ROMs - without a licence. In April 2018 cheques arrived: freelances who claimed are sharing $9 million. Roughly another $9 million went to lawyers.

The case has been to the US Supreme Court - twice. In June 2001 the Court ruled that freelances' copyright had in fact been breached. That followed a ruling in the Southern District (Federal) Court of New York 1997, in which Judge Sonia Sotomeyor dismissed the publishers' main argument - that they had an implicit right to re-sell freelances' work. But she then ruled that, under an obscure section of the US Copyright Act designed mostly to cover contributions to encyclopaedias and dictionaries, that the online editions of the newspapers were "revisions" of "collective works". Sotomayer was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2009.

The New York Times headlined its report of the payout "It Took 17 Years: Freelancers Receive $9 Million in Copyright Suit" - dating the delay from the 2001 Supreme Court decision, which somehow suggests that they would rather it hadn't gone that way.

Meanwhile, many other publishers had been joined to the action, including database provider Lexis-Nexis, Newsday, Inc. and Time, Inc.

Then wrestling writer Irv Muchnik led an appeal arguing, among other things, that the $18 million pot of compensation was far too small. The Supreme Court ruled again, in 2010, that this was a proper "class action" lawsuit, and it went back to the US Second Circuit appeal court. We reported then that the writers' share stood at $11 million.

The NUJ is now seeking advice for members on any tax paperwork required when cashing the cheques. Bookmark this page and come back for updates.