US publishers argued in vain that on-line versions of freelancer’s copy were “revisions” of the off-line story and needed no separate permission.
Who: New York Times and the National Writers’ Union
Where: US Supreme Court
When: July 2001
American journalists got fed up with articles they had supplied to newspapers being recycled in the papers’ on-line versions and on on-line news databases such as Nexis for no additional payment. They brought a representative action for copyright infringement against the New York Times and other US newspapers and won. The court did not accept the publishers’ arguments that electronic publication was no more than a “revision” of the original work and was not a copyright infringement. The case now goes back to the US District Court for the amount of compensation due to be assessed.
Why this matters:
This is a US case so has no direct binding effect in the UK, but nevertheless it underlines the need for marketing agencies using freelances to ensure that right from the start they leave nothing to chance. There should be a written contract in place, drawn up by expert counsel, by which the freelance clearly assigns to the agency all copyright in all material supplied. Only in this way can the agency be sure that whatever future use may be made of the freelance’s output, on-line or off-line, the agency, and its client, has a clear right to put it to that use without further obligation.