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Law School Case Brief

N.Y. Times Co. v. Tasini - 533 U.S. 483, 121 S. Ct. 2381 (2001)

Rule:

When a freelance author has contributed an article to a "collective work" such as a newspaper or magazine, the Copyright Act, as amended in 1976, recognizes two distinct copyrighted works. 17 U.S.C.S. § 101. Copyright in each separate contribution to a collective work is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole. 17 U.S.C.S. § 201(c). Copyright in the separate contribution vests initially in the author of the contribution. Copyright in the collective work vests in the collective author and extends only to the creative material contributed by that author, not to the preexisting material employed in the work, 17 U.S.C.S. § 103(b).

Facts:

Six freelance authors contributed articles in which they had registered copyrights to periodicals published by print publishers. Under agreements with the print publishers, but without the freelancers' consent, electronic publishers copied the articles appearing in the periodicals, including the freelancers' articles, into computer databases that contained thousands or millions of files with individual articles from thousands of collective works, either in one series or in scores of series. Plaintiff authors filed a civil action, alleging that their copyrights were infringed when, as permitted and facilitated by defendant print publishers, the electronic publishers placed their articles in the databases. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, concluding that defendant publishers infringed the copyrights of plaintiff freelancers. Defendant publishers filed a petition for certiorari review.

Issue:

Does the placement of the freelancers’ articles in the publishers' electronic databases infringe their copyrights?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court held that the reproduction of freelance authors' magazine and newspaper articles in computer databases, without authors' permission infringed authors' copyright. Media neutrality protected authors' rights to the extent the articles were presented individually within the databases. The storage and retrieval systems effectively overrode authors' exclusive rights. The electronic publishers were not selling equipment; they sold copies of the articles.

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