The 17-Year Payoff: Tasini vs. New York Times Digital Copyright Lawsuit

Talk about snail mail. It took 17 years, but checks for ASJA members and others who filed claims in the Tasini vs. New York Times lawsuit finally arrived a little over a month ago. “I kept telling people they would get the money, but no one actually believed me,” half-jokes former ASJA President Randy Dotinga, who served as a point person during the lawsuit, informing members of progress or lack thereof. Along with ASJA, plaintiffs who filed a class action suit for the landmark digital copyright case in 2001 included the Author’s Guild, the National Writers Union and 21 individual freelance writers. The suit came about due to a similar case won a few months earlier in the Supreme Court by journalist Jonathan Tasini and five co-plaintiffs.

“Basically newspapers and databases were using our freelance articles online without our permission,” continues Randy. “They put them in their archives without asking permission or signing a contract.” Among many others, the culprits included the electronic databases like Lexis/Nexis (and its provider Reed Elsevier), ProQuest and EBESCO and publishers such as The New York Times, Dow Jones and Time, Inc. The settlement, a bit shy of $9.5 million (not $18 million, as reported by Adweek in 2005) for the writers alone, also included some $900,000 in administrative expenses and also allowed for a whopping $4 million in lawyer’s fees. Are we in the wrong business or what?

An immense amount of legal wrangling was involved, as detailed in the settlement website and a recent article in The New York Times. “We’d think we were getting the money, and then another appeal would happen to delay it further,” explains Randy. Finally, though of the more than 3,000 writers who filed claims for 600,000 articles, nearly 2500, saw payment. “How much you got depended upon whether or not you registered copyrights for your work,” he goes on. “Those who had done so received the most money” with a point of contention being how much and whether to even remunerate those who had not.

While coming to an agreement in 2005—which was when both copyrighted and non-copyrighted plaintiffs could file their claims—negotiations were held up “over disagreement of how to handle plaintiffs who had not registered copyrights for their work, until a Supreme Court ruling, in 2010, held that the settlement proceedings could continue,” according to The New York Times.  “The groups reached what seemed to be a final agreement in 2014, only to endure four more years of delays caused by 41,000 objections from the defendants and specific claims by the authors.”

The size of the checks, which ranged from three figures (yours truly) to five (name redacted to prevent phone calls from relatives, long-lost and otherwise) and in a few cases, even six (those folks are keeping completely silent) came as a pleasant shock to most recipients. And you had to work hard for the money, doing extensive research on when and where the articles appeared and proving that you were indeed the author. “This is where keeping records, including pay stubs, contracts, and so forth, really paid off,” notes Randy, who filed hundreds of claims. “At that point in my career, I was a writing machine, churning out copy for magazines, trade journals and newspapers.”

Not an easy task when you already spend your days writing and managing deadlines. I remember wanting to tear out my hair as I struggled with voluminous paperwork and mountains of information to find proof to file my own claims.

Some lingering questions remain, including the statement on the settlement site that 1099s will not be filed nor will be IRS be notified. While this was a subject of discussion on ASJA’s Forum, the consensus was that it’s probably a good idea to at least notify your tax preparer (or the IRS itself if you do your own taxes).

And “if you filed a claim and haven’t yet received the money, you’ll need to check to make sure they have the correct mailing address,” advises Randy. That and other information can be found on the FAQ portion of the settlement site.

Finally, what to do with the windfall? While everything from a splurge (new sandals) to the practical (replacement tires) to even big ticket items (a new car) have been bandied about, Randy suggests considering donating a portion to the Writer’s Emergency Assistance Fund (WEAF) or the ASJA Charitable Trust Educational Foundation. “Some people are giving 10 percent, but any amount is greatly appreciated,” he observes.

“The settlement attests to the power of ASJA,” he says, noting that electronic rights are now considered (and hopefully compensated for) in every contract. “It shows that we, as writers need to stick together and stand up for our rights.” Even when it takes 17 years.

The Writer’s Emergency Assistance Fund (WEAF) distributes donations to freelance writers who are experiencing an emergency that prevents them from working. The ASJA Charitable Trust Educational Foundation’s 70th Anniversary Fundraising Campaign is raising funds for an educational hub designed to assist independent writers in gaining skills and knowledge to further their careers. Each is accepting donations at the links included.