Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
Dummerston, Vt.

Printable version of this story

DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I arrived at the demonstration I burst into tear= s. A few moments later, I was surprised to find myself taking shelter in a=

niche of the towering gray New York Times building on 43rd Street i= n New York City, bawling like a baby and without the slightest idea of why.

It was early, and across the street police were towing away cars and set= ting up barricades in the parking lane. Two National Writers Union employee= s were hanging a yellow banner on the back of a flatbed truck, and two othe= rs were handing out home-made sign. One said, "E-wrongs about E-rights," an= d another, "Freelance doesn't mean free."

For me, as a freelance journalist and member of the NWU, the battle over= electronic rights has been a long and personal struggle. Two months ago, = the U.S. Supreme Court found that the electronic distribution of freelancer= -written articles in newspapers and magazines requires separate copyright a= uthorization from the writers. Therefore, for years, the Times and = other newspapers have been infringing on the rights of freelancers when the= y post -- for sale -- stories in electronic databases without consent.

Basically, this is a fight over whether traditional copyright laws shall= be carried over into the Internet Age, or whether the new technology allow= s media and entertainment conglomerates to stage a free-for-all rights grab= .

It is the same issue which put Napster down, cost Doubleday a recent e= -book court decision, and won strong new contracts for screen actors and sc= reen writers. In every case, the older values -- the ones that affirm a cr= eator's rights to profit from his or her creations -- have triumphed.

But= after losing to the NWU in the Supreme Court, the newspaper and magazine i= ndustries -- alone among the large media and entertainment corporations --r= efused to do what was simple and right, which was to pay extra money for ex= tra rights. Instead, the Times (and many others) destroyed their on-= line historical record by removing all freelancer-written stories unless th= e writers signed away their rights without additional compensation.

And t= hat was why the union called for a demonstration in front ofthe Times on July 19th.

When I finally stopped crying, I crossed the street and asked NWUpreside= nt Jonathan Tasini, a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, andElizabeth Bun= n, the international vice-president of the United Auto Workers(the parent u= nion of the NWU) why they thought the Times was being so intransigen= t.

"It's about sheer greed," Tasini said. "It has to be something deepe= r," I said. "They've already spentmore money on lawyers than they would eve= r have had to spend on us."

"It's arrogance, too," Bunn said. "It's the <= i>Times saying, 'We're The New York Times. No one, not even the = Supreme Court, is going to tell us what to do.'"

By noon the barricades were full. The New York Daily News, the on= ly newspaper to report on the event, said there were 200 people there, but = I counted over 400, plus one large inflatable rat whose claws and whiskers = waved at the Times throughout the demonstration.

Many unions came out in support. Actors Equity, the Screen ActorsGuild, = the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and theUnited Auto= Workers were there. The American Society of Journalists &Authors and the G= raphic Artists Guild were represented, along with theJewish Labor Committee= . A union that had recently, after a very long, hard,ugly fight, won a vi= ctory against the Museum of Modern Art, was there too.

I picked up a sign that said, "News flash to the NY Times: Creators own = the copyrights -- U. S. Supreme Court," and started chanting with the rest:= "What do we want? Fair contracts. When do we want them? Now!"

Standing next to me was an attractive woman with a computer printout tha= t said simply, in large letters, "Writers have rights." Of allthe people th= ere, most of the photographers chose to take her picture. Iasked her why.=

"I've done enough demonstrating to know that this is how you doit," she = said. "I have a small white sign. The letters are in clear black.I'm holdin= g the sign right under my chin. And I'm pumping my fist in theair as I chan= t. It all makes for a good photograph."

Many speakers spoke to us from th= e back of the truck. Bunn, forexample, said that the UAW had won harder bat= tles against more formidableopponents.

"But when we win in Detroit, the c= ar companies don't destroy thecars," she said.

Erica Jong spoke too, and = because she is a writer, her speech was astory. A while back, she said, at = a Hollywood dinner party, she foundherself sitting next to Yip Harburg, the= composer of "Over the Rainbow,"among many great songs.

"'Writers and pai= nters are so mean to each other, and they're sohappy to see each other fail= ,' I told him," she said. "Why are composers sohappy all the time?'"

"Bec= ause we're all filthy rich," he answered.

Back in 1914, a group of compos= ers that included John Philip Sousaand Irving Berlin joined together to for= m the American Society ofComposers, Authors and Publishers. Ever since then= , their copyrights havebeen protected. The NWU has formed a similar group, = the Publication RightsClearinghouse, but the Times has refused to re= cognize or negotiate with it.

A few years ago, Jong continued, she had w= ritten lyrics for arecord that was not an especially big hit.

"But I've g= otten $100,000 in royalties from ASCAP over the years,"she said. "That's mo= re than anything I've ever made from newspaper andmagazine articles."

Aft= er about five more speeches the demonstrators peacefullydispersed and the p= olice started packing up the barricades.

And I started crying again, but = this time I thought I had a handleon the reason. For one thing, in my time= I have demonstrated against theVietnam War, for civil rights, for abortion= rights, and for gay and lesbianrights. This was the first time, I realized= , that I had ever demonstratedfor my own rights.

But mostly, it was becau= se in America we have the rights to freespeech and free assembly. The polic= e were there to protect these rights,even though we were demonstrating agai= nst an institution of staggeringpower. I was crying for the same reason tha= t I cry at Fourth of Julyparades -- because I am, at heart, idealistic. I b= elieve in America andthese rights, trampled and tarnished though they may b= e, and I find themenormously touching and beautiful.

The goal of our demo= nstration was to make the newspapers stopbullying us, and I have hopes that= we may have prevailed. In the nextday's paper, the Times' spokesma= n commented tersely that the paper had just "opened discussions with the pl= aintiffs' lawyers."

Maybe it was the rat.

Joyce Marcel is a freelanc= e journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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