New York Times Company, Inc. v. Tasini

PETITIONER:New York Times Company, Inc.
LOCATION:Office of Attorney General

DOCKET NO.: 00-201
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 533 US 483 (2001)
ARGUED: Mar 28, 2001
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2001

Laurence E. Gold – Argued the cause for the respondents
Laurence H. Tribe – Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

Various freelance authors wrote articles for various print publishers. The publishers treated the authors as independent contractors under contracts. The publishers each licensed rights to copy and sell articles to LEXIS/NEXIS, owner and operator of a computerized database containing articles in text-only format. NEXIS does not reproduce the print publication’s formatting. The authors filed suit alleging that their copyrights were infringed when the print publishers placed their articles in the electronic publishers’ databases, such as LEXIS/NEXIS. In response, the print and electronic publishers raised the privilege accorded collective work copyright owners by section 201(c) of the Copyright Act. In granting the publishers summary judgment, the District Court held that the electronic databases reproduced and distributed the authors’ works, under section 201(c), “as part of…[a] revision of that collective work” to which the authors had first contributed. In reversing, the Court of Appeals found that the databases were not among the collective works covered by section 201(c), and specifically, were not “revisions” of the periodicals in which the Articles first appeared.


Do print and electronic publishers violate the copyrights of freelance authors when they include the freelancers’ already-published articles in computer databases without the author’s permission?

Media for New York Times Company, Inc. v. Tasini

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 28, 2001 in New York Times Company, Inc. v. Tasini

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 25, 2001 in New York Times Company, Inc. v. Tasini

The opinion of the Court in No. 00-201, New York Times Company versus Tasini, will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns the rights accorded freelance authors and a privilege accorded their publishers under Seciton 201(c) of the Copyright Act of 1976.

The plaintiff’s six freelancers contributed articles to three print publications, two newspapers, the New York Times and Newsday and one magazine, Sports Illustrated.

Without the author’s permission, the print publishers authorized LEXIS/NEXIS to place the author’s articles into the Nexis database.

The Times also authorized University Microfilms International to place Times articles into the New York Times OnDisc and General Periodicals OnDisc.

The three databases have several common features, each contains articles from sequential editions of periodicals spanning many years.

In each, the user may search for articles based on criteria such as author, subject or headline.

The user may view, print or download each article yielded by the search, each story appears to the user separately clear of the context provided by other items originally published in the same edition.

The freelance authors complained that their copyrights in their individual works were infringed when the defendant Electronic Publishers as licensed by the defendant Print Publishers, distributed the author’s articles to the databases.

In response the publishers asserted that their actions were shielded by Section 201(c) of the Copyright Act, the meaning of that provision is “key to this case”.

The Section leaves author and publishers free to negotiate whatever arrangement they will, in default of private ordering, Section 201(c) declares that the freelancer retains, the copyrights in her contribution to a collective work like a magazine or newspaper.

The publisher in the words of the statute is presumed to have acquired only the privilege of reproducing and distributing the contribution, as part of that particular collected work, any revision of that collective work, and a later collective work in the same series.

The US District Court for the Southern District of New York, granted summary judgment for the publishers.

In that court’s view, the databases copied to freelancers articles as part of a revision of the original periodical edition and so qualified for the Section 201(c) privilege.

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed ordering entry of judgment for the authors.

In the Court of Appeals’ view, massive databases loaded with multitudes of individually retrievable articles are not revisions of particular newspaper or magazine editions.

But we hold that the Court of Appeals correctly construed Section 201(c) and we therefore affirmed its judgment.

The 1976 Copyright Act, aimed to improve the situation of freelance authors vis-à-vis their publishers.

To that end Section 201(c) assures that if there is a demand for a freelance article, either standing alone or when a new collection, the freelancer can benefit from that demand after authorizing initial publication, the freelancer can sell the article to others.

The crucial statutory term of Section 201(c), relevant here, allows the publisher to reprint the article as part of a revision of the original collective work.

Like the Second Circuit, we cannot see how the databases perceptively copy articles as part of a revision of a particular edition of a newspaper or magazine.

One might view the articles as part of a new compendium, the entirety of works in the database.

But the massive Database no more constitutes a “revision” of each constituent edition than a 400-page novel quoting a solid in passing would constitute “revision” of that poem.

Alternatively, one could view the articles in the databases as part of no larger work at all, but simply as individual articles presented individually.

But 201(c) does not authorize the publisher to copy individual articles discretely.

The publisher’s privilege is in the collective work only, the edition as a whole.

The publishers have warned that a ruling for the authors will decimate the electronic record of history, but today’s decision means only that the publishers have infringed the author’s copyrights and must provide appropriate regrets.

The opinion does not necessitate a court order barring inclusion of the freelancer’s articles in the databases.

Speculation about the publisher’s response to our ruling moreover, provides no cause for this Court to shrink rights, Congress safeguarded to authors under Section 201(c).

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer Joins.