The checks are in the mail—finally. Administrators have confirmed that payments were issued last week to thousands of freelance writers following a 2014 settlement in the long-running class action case In Re Literary Works in Electronic Databases, the culmination of some 17 years of litigation.
According to the Authors Guild, more than 3,000 writers initially filed claims pertaining to more than 600,000 articles. But in the final tally, 2,494 writers were mailed checks totaling $9,456,000 in compensation. The publishers defendants were also responsible for paying attorneys’ fees and costs totaling $3,906,000, and claims administration expenses of $889,000.
Known commonly as “Freelance,” In re Literary Works was a follow-on class action suit to settle claims by freelance writers against a group of major publishers following the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the landmark Tasini vs. New York Times case, the seminal legal battle of the digital publishing era which affirmed that publishers could not redistribute writers' works in electronic products without a contract.
The Authors Guild first filed the suit in 2001, along with the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union, and 21 freelance writers named as class representatives.
“This has been a long road, and we are glad to finally see freelance writers compensated for the unauthorized uses of their articles,” said Mary Rasenberger, the Guild’s executive director, in a statement.
It has been a long, winding legal road indeed, including numerous objections, and two trips to the Supreme Court before a final settlement was approved in 2014.
The final payouts were then delayed further by the more than 41,000 objections filed by the defendant publishers challenging specific claims under the revised settlement agreement, each of which had to be tediously resolved. Those challenges appear to have paid off for the defendants, however, as the final payout amounts to just over 50% of the $18 million liability cap negotiated in the initial settlement agreement.
In its release, the Authors Guild confirmed that “a few writers will receive payouts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” with the amounts calculated upon a number of factors, including whether the individual works were registered with the Copyright Office.
In fact, the issue of copyright registration was one of the key questions that delayed a final settlement, after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 2007 surprised everyone by rejecting the initial settlement on jurisdictional grounds, saying it could not approve payments to writers with unregistered copyrights. But on March 2, 2010, the Supreme Court reversed, paving the way for unregistered copyright holders to join the class.
One of the lead objectors, Irv Muchnick, told PW that while he understood the frustration among class members over the legal delays arising from the objections, he was “proud” to have stood up for those with unregistered copyrights, which, he said, make up the bulk of the class.
”We succeeded in getting proper representation for the super-majority of the class, holders of non-registered copyrights, without whom the defendant publishers and electronic databases could not have achieved complete peace,” he said. "The Freelance case is officially over and done. Period, end of paragraph. The checks are in the mail at last."