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A federal judge has granted preliminary approval of an $18 million settlement in a class action suit on behalf of thousands of freelance writers who sold literary works to newspapers and magazines and whose works later appeared in electronic databases without their consent. Lead plaintiffs lawyer Michael J. Boni of Kohn, Swift & Graf in Philadelphia said the settlement is believed to be the largest copyright class action settlement in history. “This is a terrific result for the freelancers,” said Boni. “This settlement will finally provide payment to thousands of freelance authors who woke up one day and found their works being sold on electronic databases without their permission.” Under the terms of the proposed settlement, publishers including the New York Times, Time Inc., and the Wall Street Journal, and database companies including Dow Jones Interactive, Knight-Ridder, Lexis-Nexis, Proquest and West Group agreed to pay writers up to $1,500 for stories in which the writers had registered a copyright. Writers who failed to register their copyrights will receive up to $60 per article. The amount paid will depend on a number of factors, including whether the writer registered the copyright, the original fee paid for the article, the year it was published and whether the writer permits the future use of the article in the databases. U.S. District Judge George M. Daniels of the Southern District of New York granted preliminary approval of the settlement, clearing the way for the lawyers to spend $1 million from the settlement fund to notify the class. The settlement also provides that the plaintiffs lawyers — Boni, along with co-lead counsel Diane Rice of Hosie Frost Large & McArthur and A.J. De Bartolomeo of Girard Gibbs & De Bartolomeo, both in San Francisco — may petition for up to $4.4 million in attorney fees. Several prominent authors served as named plaintiffs in the suit, including E.L. Doctorow, Lettie Cotton Pogrebin, James Gleick and Derrick Bell. The Authors Guild, the National Writers Union, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors also joined as co-plaintiffs. According to court papers, it was industry practice for years for freelance authors to sell their works to publications without a written contract. Customarily, for a fee paid to the author, the author granted to the publisher the first right to publish the work in a specified edition of the newspaper or magazine, but in all other respects the author retained copyright ownership to the work. In the 1980s and early 1990s, when electronic databases such as LEXIS/NEXIS came into existence, print publishers entered into license agreements authorizing the databases to copy and sell the first text (or portions) of the publications, including articles written by freelance contributors. But the print publications typically did not obtain the freelance authors’ written permission for this subsequent publication of their works on the electronic databases. In the suit, captioned In re Literary Works in Electronic Databases Copyright Litigation, a group of freelance writers alleged that the databases and print publications violated their copyrights in the electronically reproduced works. In the settlement, the defendants denied any wrongdoing or liability, and denied that any member of the class would be entitled to damages if the case proceeded to trial. According to court papers, the settlement was struck after extensive negotiations mediated by attorney Kenneth R. Feinberg of The Feinberg Group in Washington, D.C. Feinberg, a former federal prosecutor in New York who served as the special master of the federal Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund, now focuses his practice on negotiated resolutions of complex legal disputes.

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