by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 26, 2001
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 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 freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics, economics and travel.