High Court Action

Freelancers to Have Day in Court Labor Dispute Reaches High Court Court Passes on Multiple Defendant Case Court Stays Out of Cellular Dispute

Court to Decide Copyright Case

Taking on an Internet-age dispute, the Supreme Court agreed today to decide whether The New York Times and other publications violate freelance contributors’ copyrights by putting their articles in electronic databases.

The court said it will hear arguments by the Times, Newsday, Time Inc. and two database companies that they can put freelance articles—already published in their print editions — in online and CD-ROM databases without separate permission from the authors.

The authors contend the newspapers and magazine paid for the right to publish the articles in their printed versions, but that they did not have the right to republish them electronically.

The companies said a lower court ruling in the authors’ favor “sets a national rule requiring the destruction of decades’ worth of articles” stored in electronic archives.

The lawsuit was filed in New York by six freelance authors who sold articles to the Times, the Long Island newspaper Newsday, and Sports Illustrated between 1990 and 1993. Sports Illustrated is published by Time Inc. Also named in the lawsuit were the electronic database companies Lexis/Nexis and University Microfilms.

The lawsuit said those companies violated the authors’ copyrights in their articles by republishing them in online databases or CD-ROMs.

The federal Copyright Act says newspapers and magazines can republish such articles in a “revision” of the original publication.

The Times and other companies said the electronic versions were a “revision” of the original newspaper or magazine, and therefore they did not need separate permission from the authors to put the articles in their databases.

A federal judge agreed with the companies. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in September 1999 and ruled for the authors. The court said publications cannot put freelance articles in online databases without specific permission from the authors.

In the appeal acted on today, the companies’ lawyers said the 2nd Circuit court’s ruling would be “disastrous for the nation’s libraries, academic institutions and publishers.”

The authors’ lawyers said the companies exaggerated the possible effects of the ruling.

The case is New York Times Co. vs. Tasini, 00-201.

Court Hears Arbitration Case

The Supreme Court heard arguments today on whether employers can require workers to resolve labor disputes through arbitration rather than litigation.

Arbitration is the preferred method of settling disputes for a growing number of companies, so the case is being watched closely by civil rights and business groups.

The case before the court stems from a lawsuit by Saint Clair Adams, who was required to sign a document agreeing to settle any potential labor grievance through binding arbitration before Circuit City Stores Inc. would hire him in 1995.

A year later he quit, then filed a lawsuit that alleged co-workers at a Santa Rosa, Calif., store harassed him because he is gay, and the company did nothing when he complained.

A federal District Court judge threw out the case, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. That court ruled the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act specifically excluded “seamen, railroad employees or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce,” which the court said includes Adams.

Business groups say arbitration is more convenient, less time-consuming and cheaper than lawsuits to settle grievances. Critics say workers forfeit certain rights when they go before a private arbitrator rather than a judge. Appeals often are limited, damages are capped, and severe restrictions are placed on discovery, the process by which a worker’s lawyer may gather information to buttress the case.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a policy recommendation in 1997 against mandatory arbitration. Several civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund, have sided with Adams.

Almost one-fifth of the national work force is covered by arbitration agreements, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The argument before the high court is whether an exclusion to the 1925 statute should be broadly interpreted to include workers such as Adams. Other appellate courts have chosen a narrower interpretation than the 9th Circuit.

The case is Circuit City Stores vs. Adams. 99-1379.

Justices Decline Multiple Defendant Case

The Supreme Court will not clarify whether prosecutors may claim different versions of the same events at the criminal trials of separate defendants.

The court, without comment, today let stand a lower court ruling that said prosecutors were out of bounds in a Missouri murder case that involved six defendants.

The 8th U.S. Court of Appeals overturned Jon Keith Smith’s conviction in the 1983 robbery and killing of an elderly couple, saying in effect that Missouri prosecutors could not have it both ways.

State prosecutors pointed to Smith as a chief culprit at his 1987 trial, which included testimony from an alleged accomplice.

The alleged accomplice had told authorities that all six people were involved in the killings, but on the stand at Smith’s trial he said only two people were killers. He admitted being part of a burglary ring but said he and Smith arrived at the scene after the killings.

The prosecutor produced the earlier statement, argued that all six were involved from the start and won murder and armed robbery convictions against Smith.

A few months later the same prosecutor put the alleged accomplice on the stand during the trial of another of the six defendants. The defendant was one of the two that the alleged accomplice had named as the killers at Smith’s trial.

This time, the prosecutor did not object when the alleged accomplice repeated the allegation that only two people were involved in the killings.

Smith claimed that his rights were violated when prosecutors stood behind two different versions of events. The federal appeals court, which covers Arkansas and six Midwestern states, agreed.

State prosecutors sought high court blessing of their approach, arguing that each defendant was treated fairly.

The case is Gammon vs. Smith, 00-354.

Court Avoids Cell Phone Tower Case

The Supreme Court stayed out of a dispute over how much leeway local governments have to control cellular telephone companies’ installation of antennas to broaden their service areas.

The court, without comment today, turned down Omnipoint Communications Enterprises’ argument that it was improperly refused permission to install an antenna in Newtown Township, Pa.

Omnipoint sued under the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act, which bars local governments from enacting laws that would “prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the provision of wireless services.”

Omnipoint applied for a permit to put antennas on top of an apartment building in Newtown Township. The town zoning board denied the permit in 1998.

The company sued, and a federal judge ruled for the company. The judge said Newtown’s zoning policy violated the telecommunications law because it, in effect, barred placement of antennas anywhere in the township. Other companies were able to install antennas because officials “looked the other way,” the judge said.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision last March. The court said it is not sufficient for a cellular phone company to show that it was denied a chance to fill a gap in its own service area.

The case is Omnipoint Communications vs. Newtown Township, 00-353.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.