By: Joe Strupp
A dispute over what constitutes a newspaper embargo and copyright infringement has arisen between the publisher of disgraced former reporter Jayson Blair’s forthcoming book and The New York Times, leading the publisher to seek receipts for a purported Amazon.com purchase of the book by a Times staffer.
New Millennium Press of Beverly Hills, Calif., contends that the Times, in an article published last Friday, broke an embargo when it ran several quotes from the book. New Millennium President Michael Viner said he sent the paper an advance copy of the book, titled “Burning Down My Masters’ House” last week with the understanding that elements of the book would not be disclosed until after the March 6 publication date.
Ed Reilly, in-house counsel for New Millennium, said the paper also may have violated copyright laws by referring to elements of the book prior to publication. “We are looking at them for copyright infringement for publishing excerpts of the book that could hurt our sales of the book,” Reilly told E&P, adding that the New York Daily News, which also ran a story the same day revealing elements of the book, may be targeted for legal action as well.
Daily News officials did not comment on the issue Monday.
However, Catherine Mathis, a Times spokeswoman, said the paper clearly reported in its story that it had obtained a copy by ordering it on Amazon.com. “We did not break an embargo,” she told E&P. “We were very, very clear about what was done.” The book, she said, was “obtained legally through an order made to Amazon.com and was never subject to any embargo agreement.”
Mathis did not comment when asked about a possible copyright infringement accusation.
In all, the Times article quoted 156 words from the Blair book. Reporter Jacques Steinberg, who wrote the article, declined to comment on the issue on Monday.
Reilly said he had asked the Times for proof that an Amazon.com purchase occurred, seeking copies from the newspaper of a receipt for the transaction that he contends have yet to be made available. But he emphasized that the Times actions were wrong no matter how they obtained the book.
“Regardless of how they got it, it was a wrongfully obtained copy. They got a copy that they knew they shouldn’t have gotten,” Reilly said. “They violated our copyright regardless of how they got it.”
Viner cited the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harper and Row Publishers Inc. vs. Nation Enterprises as potential grounds for legal action against the Times. In that case, The Nation magazine obtained an unauthorized copy of a forthcoming memoir from President Gerald Ford and published about 300 words from the book in 1979.
Harper & Row, which had negotiated a deal with Time magazine for publication of a 7,500-word excerpt, sued The Nation. The Supreme Court eventually ruled, 6-3, in Harper & Row’s favor. However, in that case, The Nation had revealed the most newsworthy element in the entire book: Ford’s explanation of why he pardoned Nixon.
Viner also accused Times staffers of photocopying the book and passing it around the Times newsroom, but did not cite a source for this accusation.
Mathis would not comment on the allegation. In a staff memo about the book distributed last week, Executive Editor Bill Keller mentioned that advance copies of the book “have begun to circulate,” but he did not make clear whether he meant that copies were circulating in his own newsroom or within the media industry in general. He could not be reached for comment Monday because he was out of town.
Viner said he sent an advance copy last week to Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review, with the understanding that elements of the book not be disclosed until the publication date, March 6. Although he believes that McGrath has not broken that agreement, he contends that someone in the newsroom did.
McGrath, who plans to run a review of the book on March 14, told E&P he had abided by the agreement, but offered no further comment.