Databases and Collection Issues

Databases & Collections: Basic Principles

As creators, we do not oppose personal, private use of our work. For example, reading material obtained through a library or using material in research. But when companies resell our work for a profit, we deserve some share of that income.

Databases & Collections: Discussion

Long before the advent of electronic publishing, newspapers and magazines collected copies of their back issues in what they called a “morgue.” Writers and researchers were usually allowed to use the morgue at no charge. Eventually publications began distributing their back issues on micro-film and micro-fiche to libraries, where users could access them for free.

Now publishers are selling the contents of their morgues in electronic format. Some of them charge users to view or download individual stories or publication issues, others sell entire collections to database companies that then charge users.

But some of the material contained within such collections is work by freelance writers who sold only first print rights, which did not include electronic database or resale rights. And in fact, for works originally sold before the advent of electronic formats, such rights did not even exist at the time the piece was written and sold. Yet publishers are refusing to share with authors any portion of the income they are now realizing from this subsidiary resale of the authors’ work.

In our opinion, the unilateral and uncompensated expansion of first print rights to include database and other electronic rights on the part of publishers is a clear violation of basic copyright principles and an unconscionable expropriation of writers’ work and income. This issue is at the core of the “Tasini v New York Times” copyright lawsuit currently being litigated in Federal court with the support of the National Writers Union.

 Databases & Collections: We Advocate

  • Separate rights. That writers should retain and sell database and similar collection-related electronic rights separately from first print rights.
  • Explicit sale of rights. That database and other electronic collections rights are only transferred or sold when done so explicitly. In other words, sale of first print rights does not automatically include database and electronic rights.
  • Fair share. That authors transfer database and other electronic collection rights only in return for a reasonable lump sum fee, or a reasonable royalty system whereby the writer is paid a fair share for each commercial access of the writer’s work.