Taking on an Internet-age dispute, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether The New York Times and other publications violate free-lance contributors' copyrights by putting their articles in electronic databases.
The court said it will hear arguments by the Times, Newsday, Time Inc. and two database companies that they can put free-lance articles - already published in their print editions - in online and CD-ROM databases without separate permission from the authors.
The authors contend the newspapers and magazine paid for the right to publish the articles in their printed versions, but that they did not have the right to republish them electronically.
The companies said a lower court ruling in the authors' favor "sets a national rule requiring the destruction of decades' worth of articles" stored in electronic archives.
The lawsuit was filed in New York by six free-lance authors who sold articles to the Times, the Long Island newspaper Newsday, and Sports Illustrated between 1990 and 1993. Sports Illustrated is published by Time Inc. Also named in the lawsuit were the electronic database companies Lexis/Nexis and University Microfilms.
The lawsuit said those companies violated the authors' copyrights in their articles by republishing them in online databases or CD-ROMs.
The federal Copyright Act says newspapers and magazines can republish such articles in a "revision" of the original publication.
The Times and other companies said the electronic versions were a "revision" of the original newspaper or magazine, and therefore they did not need separate permission from the authors to put the articles in their databases.
A federal judge agreed with the companies. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in September 1999 and ruled for the authors. The court said publications cannot put free-lance articles in online databases without specific permission from the authors.
In the appeal acted on Monday, the companies' lawyers said the 2nd Circuit court's ruling would be "disastrous for the nation's libraries, academic institutions and publishers."
The authors' lawyers said the companies exaggerated the possible effects of the ruling.
Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe represented the publishers in asking the Supreme Court to review the case.
He said the appellate decision set a national rule that warranted immediate Supreme Court intervention "because it will cause irreparable harm to electronic archives nationwide."
Tribe said publishers would be forced to delete "tens of thousands" of free-lance contributions now stored in electronic archives.
He also said there would have to be "wholesale destruction of CD-ROMs" containing periodicals with a just a handful of free-lance articles. The entire CD-ROM would have to be removed from the marketplace, he said.
Attorneys for the writer replied that the publishers had exaggerated the ruling's impact and said the case should be allowed to go back to the trial judge to decide on damages. "The sky will not fall" if that happens, they said.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case next year, with a decision due by the end of June.
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