Online Agreement Near for Writers' Group By FELICITY BARRINGER
A group representing freelance writers, which is seeking to establish the legitimacy of a central clearinghouse through which writers can be paid for the resale of old articles -- the same way musicians are paid for the resale of old songs -- is close to signing an agreement that would give new stature and visibility to the clearinghouse.
Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers' Union, and Steven D. Brill, chief executive of Contentville, a new online content distributor, both said yesterday that they had reached an agreement. It is now subject to the approval of the union's executive board, which Mr. Tasini said he expected to receive today.
Under the agreement, the two men said, writers who find their work listed for sale on Contentville.com can assert ownership of the copyright to the material, and the content distributor will agree either to pay a fee through the Publication Rights Clearinghouse, which is the writers union's organization, or to remove the disputed work from the Contentville site.
The question of online distribution of copyrighted works has been underscored recently in the debate over Napster, which allows computer users to exchange music over the Internet. But the issue for writers is generally different, and the legal debate has taken a different form.
A federal appellate court decision last September in a case brought by Mr. Tasini and the National Writers' Union struck down the contention by several publishers -- including The New York Times Company, Newsday and Time Inc. -- that electronic databases and archives were analogous to "collected works." Had this view prevailed, freelance writers -- of whom there are tens of thousands -- would have been severely limited in claiming copyright infringement when their works were included in electronic databases like Lexis-Nexis.
A spokeswoman for the Times Company and the deputy general counsel of Time Inc. said yesterday that they planned to appeal the case to the Supreme Court later this month.
When writers' works are sold, there is usually a clear transfer of ownership. For example, a magazine like Adweek buys material from a freelancer. Sometimes writers sell first-publication rights; sometimes they sell the rights in perpetuity.
Adweek then publishes the material. Some time later, it sells the rights to its archive to a so-called content aggregator, like Ebsco or the Information and Learning group of Bell &Howell. That aggregator can then resell the database of articles to a company like Contentville or Northern Light, or license its use by a library or educational organization.
Thus, a freelancer like Steve Ditlea, who lives in the Bronx and has written for publications from Adweek to Technology Review to The New York Times, found 65 of his articles for sale on Contentville.com not long after the site opened for business last month.
He called Technology Review and found that it had sold the rights to Ebsco, which in turn had licensed them to Mr. Brill's new site. "He had the biggest single listing of all my stuff," he said.
Mr. Brill said yesterday that he did not know how much material could potentially be covered by the tentative agreement. "We have approximately 2,000 magazines' archives on the site," he said. "We don't know what the universe is of articles there whose copyright is owned by freelancers."
Mr. Brill added, "It's obvious that, to put it mildly, there was some confusion." He and Mr. Tasini both said they would seek out writers to let them know that their material might be for sale on Contentville, suggesting that they sign up with the Publication Rights Clearinghouse.
Mr. Tasini said the tentative agreement "opens us up to a whole new arena whereby huge liabilities can be solved very quickly -- can put reality behind the rhetoric that we are partners with publishers."
But Robin Bierstedt, the deputy general counsel of Time, said yesterday that, as described, the Publication Rights Clearinghouse was an untenable answer to future copyright claims. Under current law, she said: "You need permission in advance before using material. A scheme by which payment comes after a claim is made doesn't work, unless you've gotten permission up front."