Judge George Daniels yesterday approved a revised $18 million settlement in In Re Literary Works in Electronic Databases, culminating 20 years of litigation that began with the landmark Tasini vs. New York Times case.
Known as “Freelance,” In re Literary Works was a follow-on class action attempt to settle claims by freelance writers against a group of major publishers following the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tasini, which affirmed that publishers could not redistribute freelancers' works in electronic products without a contract.
The original settlement in “Freelance” was announced in 2005, but a slate of objectors appealed, led by author Irv Muchnick and attorney Charles Chalmers. A long and winding process then unfolded, eventually leading to a 2010 Supreme Court decision in Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick, which sent the settlement back to the appeals court. In August, 2011 the Second Circuit finally rejected the originally proposed settlement, leading to yesterday's revised deal.
In a PW Soapbox, Muchnick explained that he opposed the original settlement mainly because it shorted writers who had not registered copyrights to their works, even though more than 99% of the millions of articles covered by the settlement are unregistered copyrighted works.
“Rather than seeing unregistered copyrights as a corpus of collective potential, lawyers for the named plaintiffs, under the direction of the Authors Guild, the National Writers Union, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, proclaimed these works to be next-to-worthless,” Muchnick wrote. “As objectors, we argued that unregistered copyright holders were not fairly represented in the negotiations. In rejecting the settlement the Second Circuit agreed.”
The final approved settlement includes claims from unregistered copyright holders, and brings closure to one of the messiest chapters in digital publishing history.
Muchnick first joined the Tasini case in 1994. In 1997, as a district court judge, future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor ruled in favor of the defendant publishers. In 1999, an Appeals Court reversed Sotomayor. In 2001, the Supreme Court affirmed that reversal. Four years later, in 2005, a settlement in the "Freelance" case was announced. It was quickly approved, but on appeal the Second Circuit surprised everyone by rejecting the settlement on jurisdictional grounds, saying the court could not approve payments to writers with unregistered copyrights. Finally, on March 2, 2010, the Supreme Court reversed, paving the way for unregistered copyright holders to join the class, and sending the objectors’ appeal back to be heard on the merits, with a new name: Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick. In August 2011, the Second Circuit rejected the original proposal, leading to years of negotiation for a new deal.
“We are gratified to bring this historic case to conclusion,” Muchnick wrote on his blog. “What the former objectors hope to have established is that the revenues from new digital media must be distributed in accordance with the law, and must be based on full negotiations involving all stakeholders.”