An update on copyright class actions

By Jeff Hecht

An appeals court has (for a second time) tried to reject settlement of a long-running U.S. Copyright class action suit over unauthorized use of freelance magazine articles in data bases. Meanwhile, if you have written for Canadian magazines or newspapers, you should check out terms of a Canadian class-action settlement for similar unauthorized use of freelance articles.

© iStockphoto.com/mustafa deliormanli

The U.S. Copyright Class Action settlement has been crawling through the U.S. legal system for six years. It was an outgrowth of the Tasini vs. New York Times case that made its way to the Supreme Court, and affirmed that publications had to pay for rights to use freelance articles in data bases if their contract did not specify that use. Claims for unauthorized use were due September 30, 2005. A group of writers objected to the class-action settlement, and their objections have been echoing through the courts.

The latest twist in the case is that the U.S. Second Circuit Court on August 17 ruled that the proposed class action settlement was invalid because it did not adequately represent the conflicting claims of writers who registered their copyrights in the disputed works and those who had not registered their copyrights.

There's a good account including some comments from authors here and a few more details here.

This could be fatal to the Google Book Settlement, warns a lawyer.

It's hard to tell what to expect next. The Times article says publishers might have to pay more into the settlement, which would be welcome. But the legal system is dragging this battle out a very long time, and for many of us it's likely to become retirement income if we're lucky, and part of our estates if we're not.

Few of us in the U.S. may have noticed, but one Canadian counterpart of the stalled U.S. class action was settled in 2009. Claims for that settlement, with Thomson-Reuters, CTV, and Gale Group, were due last year, so that matter is now settled.

On May 2, 2011, a Canadian judge approved a second similar settlement with three other major Canadian publishers, Toronto Star Newspapers, Rogers Publishing, and Canwest. The case was launched by Heather Robertson, the same freelancer behind the earlier Canadian suit. A brief description and links for more details are here. A long list of publications covered by the agreement is here (PDF). More about the claims process and links to forms and instructions are here.

If you've written for Canadian publications, you should check the details and the list. The settlement sets aside about CN$7.9 million to pay claims, so it is worth checking. The deadline for filing claims is October 15, 2011.