Rights of the Accessed
Suppose a writer submits an article on the inscrutable penguin to a nature magazine with a circulation of about 75. Now suppose the magazine's editors are so excited about this publishing coup that several thousand extra copies are run off, shipped hither and yon, and gobbled up like french fries.
Would this development strike the writer as good news? Certainly, if fame or notoriety were a fixation. But suppose the writer's career path has reached that dreary turning where making a living becomes significant. Then he or she might feel ripped off. After all, a lot more people were paying for penguin lore than the writer had ever bargained for.
Perhaps the time had come for the writer to invite in some muscle to do the bargaining.
The penguin story, as you never would have guessed, is an analogy. The real issue here isn't predatory nature magazines. It's magazines and newspapers licensing their contents to electronic databases. It's writers flat on their backs on the centerline of the nation's information superhighway.
Enter the National Writers Union. In late 1993 the NWU filed what it's pleased to call a "landmark lawsuit" in federal court in New York--not just against three major publishers, the New York Times Company, Newsday, and the Time Inc. Magazine Company, but also against Mead Data Central Inc., which owns Lexis and Nexis, and University Microfilms International. Lexis and Nexis offer the full texts of thousands of publications, reaching about 400,000 clients between them. And that number's surely a fraction of what it'll be by the turn of the century. The NWU wants its members' rights to their intellectual property spelled out before the superhighway widens from 4 lanes to 16.
"We've been doing research on this issue the last three years," says Judith Cooper, an NWU vice president who lives in Chicago. "It's a matter of principle more than anything else. If our future's being decided, we want to be part of that decision-making process."
This week's newsletter of the Chicago chapter of the NWU notes that "as part of the New Technologies Campaign, we are asking members to document if their material has been improperly resold to electronic databases. If you've sold an article or story to a publication for First North American Serial rights [the standard sale] and it ends up on a database, you should seek additional compensation." A workshop January 15 will discuss "protecting your electronic rights."
At the very least, says Cooper, "the parties that we're suing are guilty of copyright infringement if the writer's permission hasn't been gotten." Even if it has, the NWU says the writer may have been played for a sap.
"People should not be signing away their electronic rights," says Cooper, who told us that book publishers in particular are beginning to ask for them. "Nobody knows exactly what they are. Nobody knows exactly what they're worth.
"Now a book publisher takes a certain percentage of the profit on a book for labor. What happens when the writer turns over a disc and it goes on line or on CD-ROM? How much labor does the publisher actually put into it? A lot of books are being put on CD-ROM, especially children's books. Sometimes they're written directly for CD-ROM. If a book were to be published just on CD-ROM, obviously a publisher has much less expense. They won't be warehousing CD-ROMs and shredding them."
Judi Schultz, a spokesman for Mead Data, wouldn't discuss the suit directly, but she noted that subscribers can't make unfettered use of the material they call up. "They can photocopy it. They can print it out. But they can't republish it or redistribute it in any publishing fashion." Says Cooper, "I don't think that's the point. It's the same as if somebody Xeroxes the article. It doesn't absolve them from giving something to the author of the article." Not that hardly anyone does. But in 1991 the Kinko's chain lost a lawsuit brought by Basic Books to stop the wholesale copying by professors putting together course materials but not reimbursing the authors of the books they were teaching from.
Local News From Washington
Our last '93 column cited a piece Lynn Sweet wrote from Washington about a Harvard study on segregation in America's public schools. Sweet, one of the SunTimes's three Washington reporters, focused on segregation in Illinois, Chicago, and northwest Indiana.
The Tribune, with 16 reporters in Washington, carried a story from the New York Times News Service. The Chicago area and Illinois were not mentioned.
Sweet called to thank us. And then she told us she was working on another Washington story with a Chicago angle and she was willing to bet the Tribune wouldn't bother with that one either. We took the bet.
And lost it. The next morning we flipped through the Sun-Times for Sweet's byline. The story turned out to be an announcement by the Democratic National Committee that Chicago was on the short list of five cities being considered as sites for the party's '96 national convention. Sweet's piece got modest play, but the SunTimes embellished it with a "Morningline" poll asking readers if they wanted a '96 convention in Chicago.
The Tribune didn't run anything.
The Washington bureau of the Sun-Times is on roughly the same footing as the City Hall bureau and the one in the federal courthouse. It reports to the metro editor. This humble station at least offers the virtue of clarity; there's no question about what the bureau's duties are--they're to work up Chicago stories that originate in the capital.
The Tribune's Washington corps is full of pundits. Many once paid their dues covering fires and courthouses. They now think globally, though, alas, since the Tribune does not sit on the breakfast tables at which the world's fate is mulled over, they write for locals. But we suspect mere reporting seems to them retro and unworthy.
Which is why the Sun- Times can pick its spots in Washington and report circles around the Tribune.
The phone rang at 3 AM. It was one of Washington's crack investigative reporters, though not a name you'd recognize. Years ago we'd met out west somewhere covering some calamity. The details of that are vague now.
"I'm scum. I'm vermin. I'm the lowest thing on earth," lamented our old friend.
You must have just come in from the Willy beat, we surmised.
"I heard the bells ring out, peace on earth, goodwill to men. But to me they jangled, 'Ferret! Maggot! Fungus!' Ahh, my heart is wormwood."
We receive this call about once a year, usually around the holidays. Often it's preceded about two weeks earlier by the call in which he boasts he's about to break the biggest story of the century, the one that'll topple the government and win him the Pulitzer Prize. It's strange the way muckrakers descend from the giddy heights to the selfloathing depths in about the time it takes a public-opinion poll to be announced and a few cogitators to write pieces fretting that wretched excess is undermining the profession's status in the republic.
We think more city rooms should stock lithium.
"My editors said, go anywhere, do anything, and spare no expense to get the goods on our president," our friend sobbed. "I should have quit. My wife gets only 70 percent of a decent wage, and my children suffer from diseases so rare they have no name. But I should have said, 'Take this job and shove it if you think I would stoop so low at a time when global economics, welfare reform, and health care deserve to dominate the national agenda.' But I just didn't have the guts. So I did their dirty work. I went ahead and interviewed the state troopers. As if they'd know anything. I mean, they were in the front seat; the president was in the back.
"We wouldn't have worked this story so hard if he'd been selling H-bomb secrets to the North Koreans."
How do you know he wasn't? we said. How come you've never seen Gennifer Flowers and Madame Kim Il Sung together in the same picture? Your duty is to follow the trail wherever it leads and turn over every rock, no matter what vermin swarm beneath.
"You can't console me this year," he insisted. "I'm less than a worm. I'm lower than a sportswriter at the Orange Bowl. I've delved into a great man's private life, and now I'm rightly the object of the American public's disgust and contempt."
Even so, we offered, the American public carefully weighed the evidence before decreeing you had informed it of matters it had no need to know. You allowed the public to make the enlightened decision that it should have been kept in ignorance. Unless I'm hopelessly confused about the psyche of the rabble, they excoriate you gratefully.
"As usual," he said, blubbering no longer, "it was a waste of time talking to you. You're supposed to be some kind of moral authority. You're just a sarcastic, ineffectual creep."
Next time tell it to a priest, we said.
"No, not a priest," he mused. "A monsignor. An archbishop. Maybe I should take it straight to Rome. Do you have any idea how much the church has hushed up? If I could do some kind of deal with the pope for what I've learned about the Clintons, this could be my year to win a Pulitzer."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.