(November 7, 2000) The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in New York Times v. Tasini, a case regarding the application of copyright law to the republication of the articles of free lance writers in electronic databases.
The plaintiffs are free lance authors whose articles were previously published in periodicals. The defendants are publishers and owners of electronic databases which have republished their articles in electronic form.
Plaintiffs filed a complaint in U.S. District Court (SDNY) in 1993 alleging copyright infringment. U.S. District Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor issued her Opinion in 1997 holding that defendants are protected by the privilege afforded the publishers of "collective works" under Section 201(c) of the Copyright Act.
The Supreme Court's order granting the petition for writ of certiorari contained no explanation. However, it did state the following:
See, Order List [PDF], November 6, 2000, at page 2.
None of the six plaintiffs who remain in the case were employed by the periodical publications in which their articles appeared. Nor did they have work for hire contracts. All registered a copyright in each of the articles at issue in this proceeding. The authors' ownership of the copyright in their individual works is not in dispute.
Subsequently, the periodical publications licensed much of the content of their periodicals, including the plaintiffs' works, to one or more of the electronic database providers.
The defendants have argued that they own the copyright in the "collective works" that they produce and are afforded the privilege, under Section 201(c) of the Act, of "reproducing and distributing" the individual works in "any revision of that collective work" pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 201(c).
District Court Judge Sotomayor ruled on cross motions for summary judgment that the electronic databases are a "revision" of the individual periodical issues from which the articles were taken, and hence, granted summary judgment for the defendants.
Judge Winter, writing for a three judge panel of the Court of Appeals, reversed, holding that the privilege afforded authors of collective works under Section 201(c) does not permit the publishers to license individually copyrighted works for inclusion in the electronic databases.