Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Crimes of Thomson/Gale/Information Access Company (Part 1)

(‘Introducing the Crimes of Thomson/Gale/Information Access Company’

In 1994 I went online for the first time and discovered that previously published articles of mine were getting knocked off by for-profit databases. One was a product called Magazine Index, marketed by Information Access Company.

I checked the names of my hundreds of fellow members of the National Writers Union’s Bay Area Local against Magazine Index and found that scores of them -- nearly a third of the membership -- were in the same boat. Thus was born an NWU campaign, “Operation Magazine Index.” Many well-known Bay Area authors signed on, including Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, Ben Bagdikian, Todd Gitlin -- and Nicholson Baker. On October 18, 1994, Nick published an op-ed piece in The New York Times, “Infohighwaymen,” which attracted the attention of writers and information professionals around the world.

That same morning, Information Access Company copyright and licensing director Christine Gordon called me from her office in Foster City, California. (I live in Berkeley.) Several weeks earlier the writers union had sent IAC president Robert Howells a letter, on behalf of 46 infringed members, asking for “meaningful dialogue that will result in an equitable resolution of relevant outstanding issues concerning the rights and obligations of publishers, database providers, end users, and creators alike.” In response Christine Gordon had initiated a telephone and email exchange with me. On October 18 we arranged for a delegation from the writers union to tour the IAC offices and talk about copyright issues.

Under the mistaken impression that this meeting had been facilitated by Baker’s Times piece, the NWU exulted. But this turned out to be a misunderstanding. In fact, Gordon for some reason wasn't yet aware of the article. The next day she called me back and canceled the union’s visit, and my exchange with her got into our more specific claims of IAC’s systematic infringement of our members’ works. A lawyer would say that we were putting this prospective defendant on “constructive notice.”

In the fall of 1994 IAC’s owner, Ziff-Davis, sold IAC for $465 million to Canada’s Thomson Corporation, owner of the Toronto Globe and Mail and other media properties. On December 13, writers union president Jonathan Tasini wrote a follow-up letter to Thomson Corporation president W. Michael Brown. By now Operation Magazine Index, which was expanding beyond the Bay Area Local, had 66 co-signers.

The only response from the company was to "block" the articles of these 66 authors from being sold on Magazine Index. We were never informed of this; we discovered the move in the course of our continuing investigations. Libraries and information consumers were never informed either. In future years, after writers won Tasini v. New York Times in the Supreme Court, publishers would spin their version of Armageddon -- the precious "historical record" was being violated, filled with holes like so much Swiss cheese, and it was all the fault of these pesky writers. In truth the historical record had been Swiss cheese for years. It had been so ever since the first authors complained about getting ripped off and, instead of entering into reasonable negotiations with them, the database industry adopted the tactic of furtively expunging them to mitigate legal exposure. The attitude of the industry was and is: Both freelancers and the public be damned.

Irv Muchnick


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