By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, Nov 6 (Reuters) - In a case about copyright protections in an online era, the U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday it would hear an appeal by major publishers of a ruling that they must obtain the permission of free-lance contributors before including the work in electronic databases.
The justices agreed to review a U.S. appeals court decision that the publishers must pay free-lance writers, photographers and artists extra for work included in databases without their express agreement or must remove the material.
Appealing to the Supreme Court were The New York Times Co.; The Tribune Co.'s Newsday; Time Warner Inc's Time Magazine Inc.; Lexis/Nexis, a unit of Anglo-Dutch publishing group Reed Elsevier; and Bell & Howell Co.'s University Microfilms International.
The lawsuit was filed in 1993 by six free-lance authors, led by the president of the New York-based National Writers Union. They accused the media companies of copyright infringement by reproducing their work online without permission. Free-lancers are not under contract to publications but sell their work to individual buyers.
A federal trial judge in New York City ruled for the publishers in 1997.
But the appeals court in 1999 rejected the argument of the publishers, who said the electronic databases were like anthologies that could be revised without the permission of individual copyright holders.
The publishers said electronic databases were simply revised versions of original publications, and they did not have federal copyright protection.
DISPUTE APPLIES TO ELECTRONIC NEWS DATABASES
The dispute applied mainly to electronic news databases and predated the exploding use of the Internet to make information available.
Since the lawsuit was filed, many publishers have included electronic rights as a standard part of their contracts with free-lance contributors.
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 writers 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.