The business of freelance work can be fraught with complications not otherwise experienced with employees, especially when intellectual property is involved. Contracts have to be specific about ownership of the work created once it is transferred from the creator to the contracting party. And use beyond what was originally agreed can complicate matters, as a recent long-running class-action lawsuit proved.
After seventeen years, a class-action lawsuit over copyright infringement brought by a group of freelance writers against a number of large publishers was settled for $9 million. The suit was brought by the Authors Guild, along with several other professional writers' organizations, against The New York Times and other publishers for licensing the work of freelance writers to Lexis/Nexis in 2001. The plaintiffs argued that the writers were only paid for the one-time use of their work, and that in licensing their works to Lexis/Nexis the publishers were obligated to seek the authors' permission and to make further payments for additional use.
The suit has a long and tortured history. Previous agreements to settle the case have fallen apart over objections surrounding copyright registration and objections from parties involved in the lawsuit. Now, writers will begin to receive payments based upon the number of works licensed and the period in which they were published.
The lawsuit highlights the challenges faced by the authors of creative works in upholding their rights, especially as freelance writers and particularly in the age of digital media. No longer restricted to the physical media of magazines or newspapers of books, these authors' works can easily be disseminated across the internet without permission. This particular suit stands as something of an anachronism, as publishers now demand digital rights to work as part of their agreements with authors, but the difficulty of maintaining copyright on the internet is a very relevant concern for creators of all stripes.