Tasini v. New York Times, Co.: Publishers May Publish Freelance Articles On-line and on CD-ROM

In a lengthy decision, a federal court ruled that publishers of articles written by freelance writers may reproduce the freelancers' work on-line and on CD-ROM without violating the Copyright Act of 1976. The plaintiffs, all freelance writers, claimed that by putting the contents of their various publications on-line and on CD-ROM, the publisher defendants infringed the copyright held by the writers in each of their articles.

The basic question before the court was whether the electronic versions of the articles constituted “revisions” under the Copyright Act. The court determined that “if the disputed periodicals manifest an original selection or arrangement of materials, and if that originality is preserved electronically, then the electronic reproductions can be deemed permissible revisions of the publisher defendants’ collective works. If, on the other hand, the electronic [reproductions] do not preserve the originality of the disputed publications, but merely exploit the component parts of those works, then plaintiffs' right in those component parts have been infringed.”

The writers argued that Congress could not have envisioned today’s usage of electronic information systems when the Copyright Act was created, and could not have intended the financial windfall to publishers if they are allowed to reproduce the articles electronically without the writers’ permission. The court acknowledged that this may well be true, stating that if Congress agrees with the writers, then it will need to revise the Copyright Act to achieve a different result.

Tasini v. New York Times, Co., 972 F.Supp 804 (S.D.N.Y. 1997), rev'd, 206 F.3d 161 (2d Cir. 2000), aff'd, 533 U.S. 783 (2001).