Nearly seventeen years after a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 3,000 freelance journalists, settlement checks are in the mail. The lawsuit itself claimed “copyright infringement by some of the country’s biggest publishers,” but now the writers who endured the lengthy legal process “will start receiving their pieces of a settlement totaling $9 million this week.” In response to the news, James Gleick, the president of the Authors Guild and one of the named plaintiffs in the case, said:
“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. But it’s also certainly a victory tinged with bitterness because 17 years doesn’t make sense.”
Mary Rasenberger also chimed in, saying, “For the Authors Guild, this is our bread and butter — to make sure the authors and journalists get paid. We’re small but we do punch above our weight.”
But what happened, exactly? For starters, the lawsuit was filed back in 2001 by the Authors Guild, “the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union and 21 freelance writers named as class representatives” in response to publishers “licensing articles by freelancers to the electronic database Lexis/Nexis and other digital indexers without getting the writers’ approval,” according to the lawsuit. The publishers named in the lawsuit included The New York Times, Dow Jones, Reed Elsevier and Knight Ridder.
When explaining why the writer’s filed the lawsuit in the first place and the strategy they took while preparing for their battle in court, Gleick said:
“The argument that we made was the writers got paid for one-time use. 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…There were very prolific freelance writers who made a living writing for many publications and were fighting for every dollar they got. This lawsuit was very bitter at times. But it really was unfair and it’s good that they are getting some money back.”
The lawsuit itself actually carried on much longer than expected for many. For example, many thought it would reach a settlement in 2005, but “negotiations stalled over a 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.” In 2014 it looked as if a final settlement agreement might be made, but countless delays and thousands of objections pushed the final proceedings and agreements back four more years.
Fortunately for the writers, though, the end is finally here and their long legal battle was well worth the wait. Each plaintiff involved in the case will receive a payout, though the amount will vary depending on “how many pieces he or she published and when they appeared in print.” Some writers are expected to receive payouts in the six figures, and the settlement will also offer reimbursement of “nearly $4 million in attorney fees and close to $900,000 in administrative expenses.”