by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 12, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In last month's U.S. Supreme Court decision for Jonathan Tasini of the National Writers Union (I am a member) over The New York Times, the 1976 U.S. Copyright Law was upheld, freelance writers' rights were reasserted, and publishers and data collectors were told to stop stealing their work.
Even with its tarnished reputation after the Gore-Bush Florida debacle, the Supremes are still the ultimate authority. So you would thinkthat the Times and the other publishers involved (almost every newspaper and magazine in the country) would capitulate and start paying freelancers fairly.
No way, Josť. Negotiating with the freelancers is not even being considered, according to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis.
I cannot understand such highhanded behavior, but I think it must have something to do with power. It seems to hearken back to the dark dayso f the early 20th Century, when mine owners would pay Pinkerton detectives thousands of dollars to kill and terrorize striking miners and theirfamilies, rather than pay the workers a pitiful few cents an hour more This fight is certainly not about money. The Times has spent a thousand times more money on lawyers than it would ever have had to spend on independent writers.
It is certainly not about the Times' revered role as protector of "the first draft of history," or about freedom of the press, or the First Amendment, or any other higher values.
I know that because "the newspaper of record" has -- unbelievably -- announced that it will go ahead and destroy the historical record byremoving all on-line freelance articles written between 1995 and 1998 (when it imposed an equally unfair contract on its freelancers to get theiron-line rights, again without paying for them).
The paper is also beginning a lobbying campaign in Congress todismantle the U.S. Copyright Act.
Adding insult to injury, two weeks ago, the Ti= mes ran thisannouncement in the Sunday Styles section:
"The Times very much regrets having to remove any articles from electronic archives, thereby diminishing their value as a comprehensive historical resource to the public. Therefore, we would like to offer those freelancers, including Op-Ed contributors ... the option of having their articles restored."
This "restoration" involves signing over to the Times all the rights to a writer's already-printed articles. In return, the Times will give the writer no additional compensation. And it will continue to make money from the sale of the writer's work.
Notice that if freelancer writers don't sign, then it is the writers, and not the Times, who are responsible for the "diminishing value" of the historical record.
Arguing that the New York Times is strong-arming freelancers into ceding their on-line rights for nothing, the writers' union has filed another suit against the newspaper. It also ran this ad in the New York Times on July 9:
"The New York Times says some news is no longer fit to print --if it means paying writers. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that publishers cannot sell a writer's work -- electronically or by other means -- without his or her permission. Unfortunately, in the manner of old-style segregationist Governors, many publishers are standing in the schoolhouse door, trying to deny writers the cyber rights to which we are clearly entitled."
The union is staging a mass demonstration at the Times offices on July 19, from noon to 1 p.m. Hopefully, the streets will be filled with writers and members of the general public who are dismayed by the Times' arrogance and greed.
In this matter, the Times' behavior is slightly lower than slime. It makes the politicians look honorable. And it makes me incredibly anxious.
The Times, which is a great paper, has a master plan to position itself as the newspaper of record for the entire United States. This will give it enormous power.
A newspaper's job is to tell the truth and represent the interests of the public -- the entire public. A newspaper's additional responsibilities, at least in journalism folklore, are "telling truth to power" and "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."
When the greatest newspaper in the country acts with the morals of an old-fashioned mine or sweatshop owner, we are all in trouble.
"We all benefit when creators of new works of art, science and literature enjoy the protection of a stable copyright system," says the union. "That's why we brought publishers to court in the first place. That's why the Supreme Court ruled in our favor. And that's why publishersshould stop trying to bully us, and start bargaining."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes aboutculture, politics= , economics and travel.