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New York Times Co., Inc., et al. v. Tasini, et al.

121 S. Ct. 2381 (June 25, 2001)

The Supreme Court holds that The New York Times and various other publishers, by licensing all of the content of various editions of their newspapers and magazines to operators of electronic databases, which in turn permit users to search those databases for, and retrieve individual articles that appeared in such newspapers and magazines, violated the copyrights possessed in such articles by the freelance authors thereof. The Supreme Court held that Section 201(c) of the Copyright Act does not provide either the Times or other publishers who are parties to this litigation with the right to so license their publications, because the databases at issue reproduce the individual articles separate and apart from the collective work in which the publishers hold a copyright.

Plaintiffs are individual freelance authors who wrote various articles that appeared in newspapers published by the New York Times and Newsday, and/or in the magazine Sports Illustrated published by Time, Inc. While the publishers held a copyright in the collective works in which such articles appeared, the authors held the copyright in the individual articles themselves. The plaintiffs did not grant to the Publishers the right to place their articles in electronic databases.

Without the consent of the authors, the publishers entered into agreements with various database operators, which gave those database operators the right to include in their electronic database all of the articles contained in various editions of their respective newspapers or magazines.

One of these databases was operated by Lexis/Nexis, and was called the Nexis database. Users of this database can conduct a search of the database using any number of criteria, including the name of the author, subject, date, publication, headline or key term. The database informs the user of those articles within the database responsive to the request. The user may then retrieve each of the responsive articles. Importantly, "each article appears as a separate, isolated story, without any visible link to the other stories originally published in the same newspaper or magazine edition." The formatting in which the article originally appeared is also absent.

The Times also licensed its newspapers to New York Time Ondisc or NYTO. NYTO is similar to Nexis in that it contains all of the articles found in a particular edition of the Times, and will present those articles, in response to user queries, as an individual story separate from the original newspaper in which the article appeared. Unlike Nexis, however, NYTO only contains articles found in the New York Times, which are presented to the user in CDRom format.

The Times licenses its Sunday Book Review and Magazine to GPO, which provides a database containing articles from approximately 200 publications. Unlike Nexis or NYTO, however, GPO is an image-based database. Delivered on CDRom, a user who searches for articles utilizing GPO will be given the responsive article along with an exact reproduction of the page of the relevant publication on which that article appeared. He will not, however, receive the entire publication in response to a search request.

The authors asserted that use of their articles in each of these databases in the manner described above violated the copyright they held in the articles, and brought suit. The publishers argued that their activities were protected by Section 201(c) of the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. Section 201(c)). By a margin of 7 to 2, the Supreme Court rejected this defense, and held that the publishers and the operators of the databases, by their actions, had infringed the copyrights of the freelance authors at issue.

Section 201(c) provides that:

In the absence of an express transfer of the copyright or of any rights under it, the owner of copyright in the collective work is presumed to have acquired only the privilege of reproducing and distributing the contribution as part of that particular collective work, any revision of that collective work, and any later collective work in the same series.

The Supreme Court held this section inapplicable to the case at bar, because the databases at issue present the articles written by the authors independent of the collective work publications (such as a newspaper) in which they originally appeared, and outside of that context. Said the Court:

The publishers are not sheltered by 201(c), we conclude, because the databases reproduce and distribute articles standing alone and not in context, not as part of that particular collective work to which the author contributed, as part of any revision thereof, or as part of any later collective work in the same series. Both the print publishers and the electronic publishers, we rule, have infringed the copyrights of the freelance authors.

The Supreme Court rejected the publishers' attempts to analogize this action to the reproduction of their publications on microfilm or microfiche. While "the microfilm version of the Times reproduces that same article on film in the very same position within a file reproduction of the entire magazine … [i]n the [electronic] databases, by contrast, the Articles appear disconnected from their original context …".

Lastly, the Supreme Court noted that the result it reached accorded with the results reached by other countries.
Said the Supreme Court:

Courts in other nations, applying their domestic copyright laws, have also concluded that Internet or CDRom reproduction and distribution of freelancers works violate the copyrights of freelancers. See, e.g., Union Syndicale des Journalistes Franais v. SDV Plurimdia (T.G.I., Strousbourg, Fr., Feb. 3, 1998), … S.C.R.L. Central Station v. Association Generale des Journalistes Professionnels de Belgique (CA, Brussels, Belg., 9e ch., Oct. 28, 1997) … Heg v. De Volskrant B.V. (Dist. Ct., Amsterdam, Neth., Sept. 24, 1997) …".

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