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The Tasini Decision and Database Integrity

Nancy Garman
Editor, ONLINE

ONLINE, January 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.


But few have mentioned the crushing impact this decision could have on the widespread and easy access to information we now take for granted.
Consider this scenario in the digital library of the future. Your patron has requested an article that appeared in a popular magazine or newspaper. You search quickly and verify the citation, but the full text is nowhere to be found. Nothing, nada, nowhere at all--only the citation and a very brief abstract is online--anywhere, even on the magazine's own Web site.

This nightmare could become a familiar occurrence if the September 1999 decision in Tasini versus The New York Times, et al. is strictly interpreted and upheld. Most discussion surrounding the decision has focused on freelance authors' rights and the court's ruling that publishers must obtain specific electronic as well as first-publication rights for articles written by freelance authors. The ruling has generally been hailed as a victory for authors--and a headache for publishers and database producers. But few have mentioned the crushing impact this decision could have on the widespread and easy access to information that we now take for granted.

Goodbye, Full-Text Databases

Imagine the chaos! One item on a discussion list suggested that authors might even negotiate separate rights for electronic publication on Dialog, LEXIS-NEXIS, Dow Jones (oops, Factiva), and so on--disregarding the fact that often those services carry the same databases. What does the Gale Group do? And does Bell & Howell Information & Learning negotiate separately with an author to obtain permission to put the article on ProQuest, but not on Northern Light? Not likely.

More to the point, what about the millions of articles online in full text that date back to the 1970s and 1980s, and are not covered by explicit author agreements? No longer would databases contain publications cover-to-cover in full text. Only selected articles would be available online--and comprehensive searches of full-text files would be a thing of the past, since you can't search what isn't there.

Strict interpretation of Tasini says that publishers and database producers will have to remove thousands, if not millions, of full-text articles to be in compliance with authors' rights. Goodbye, Trade & Industry Database, so long, PROMT, and forget using Business & Industry Database, along with dozens of our favorite files--not that the files will cease to exist--it's just that you won't be able to count on finding the article you wanted since it may, or may not be, online. Producing Full Text Sources Online, the bible for full-text searchers, will become an impossible task. What's online full text and where? It depends on publishers' contracts, which may vary from author to author and article to article.

Authors' Residuals

What the Tasini decision comes down to is authors being paid for additional uses or views of their work after it is in electronic format. Database producers pay publishers for online usage of their articles, and it is this perceived "pot of gold" that has authors seeing dollar signs in the residual use of their work. Yet, few database producers report royalty payments to publishers by article and author, making it impossible for publishers to pass a fair share along to authors.

It remains to be seen whether authors, publishers, database producers, and online aggregators meet the demands of the Tasini decision and its supporters--and whether the requisite systemic change occurs. The issues are vastly more complex than this short Editorial portrays, but as the dialog continues, I hope that information professionals think beyond the immediate issue of digital rights. Our challenge is to consider how to reconcile authors' rights with the need for continued access to the information that is our stock in trade.

(The full text of the ruling is at http://www.tourolaw.edu/2ndCircuit/September99/97-9181.html.Writers' views are represented in documents at the National Writers' Union Website at http://www.nwu.org/nwutoc.htm.)

Comments? Call or email Nancy Garman, 864/222-9311, ngarman@infotoday.com.

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