The Authors Guild’s Unusual, Unique Legal Win

It took 17 years, but the Authors Guild and other writers’ groups scored a major win in a class-action lawsuit over digital reproduction rights that went to the Supreme Court twice. Nearly 2,500 freelance writers are receiving checks for their work this week.

Talk about a “big win”—and not losing sight of the people your organization serves.

Since 2001, the Authors Guild and other groups have taken part in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 3,000 freelance journalists whose material appeared in the electronic database LexisNexis without their consent. The suit involved three of the largest newspaper companies in the country at the time—including one, Knight Ridder, that doesn’t even exist anymore, having been subsumed into McClatchy in 2006—and proved an incredibly long path for the plaintiffs.

This was in no small part because of the sheer size of the class-action agreement: Around 600,000 articles were included in the agreement, and a group of plaintiffs challenged elements of the suit for authors who had unregistered copyrights, further complicating the legal battle. (That move, however, helped out a number of members of the class action, lead objector Irv Muchnick argued to Publishers Weekly.)

But this week, after the last of the legal details were finally hashed out, roughly 2,500 freelancers finally got their checks delivered—some winning settlements in the six figures.

“This has been a long road, and we are glad to finally see freelance writers compensated for the unauthorized uses of their articles,” Authors Guild Executive Director Mary Rasenberger said in a news release. “Getting real money into the pockets of real writers is always satisfying.”

It was a long, unusual battle—one that involved two trips to the Supreme Court and a surprising 41,000 objections from the defendants at the time a final agreement was first announced in 2014. But the Authors Guild, along with the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Writers Union, was there all along the way.

“We’ve been at the finish line for this lawsuit for a very long time, and so it is great that it’s finally happening,” Authors Guild President James Gleick, a plaintiff in the case, told The New York Times, whose parent company was one of the defendants. “But it’s also certainly a victory tinged with bitterness, because 17 years doesn’t make sense.”

Something else that makes the situation a somewhat bitter one for writers is that the win involving LexisNexis hasn’t translated elsewhere online. In the guild’s news release, Gleick noted that the research tool is basically unknown to most internet users, and that “we have a new generation of search engines and aggregators, wielding great power, imposing their own terms on the publishers themselves.”

In 2016, a similarly long-running battle over Google Books led by the Authors Guild went the other way after the Supreme Court chose not to take up the guild’s appeal.

Whatever the case, the legal battle—even as long as it took—represents a major win for the Authors Guild, which has put much effort into protecting the legal rights of writers and journalists.

“For the Authors Guild, this is our bread and butter—to make sure the authors and journalists get paid,” Rasenberger told the Times. “We’re small but we do punch above our weight.”

(Ulf Wittrock/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!