Sometimes the wheels of justice turn really, really slowly. But they eventually come around at last.

That’s the message you can take from yesterday’s story in the New York Times about a long-running copyright lawsuit that’s finally started paying out a total of $9 million in damages to the victorious plaintiffs. If you thought the Google Books matter took a long time to resolve, take a look at this: these authors have been waiting all of 17 years for their payout.

In 2001, the Tasini vs. New York Times Supreme Court decision vindicated a number of freelancers who had seen the New York Times and other publishers pass their work on to electronic databases without permission or remuneration. Not long after that, the Authors Guild helped a number of other freelancers file a similar class-action suit against the Times and various other publishers, for redistributing their work through Lexis/Nexis.

The reason behind the delays was effectively the same as in Google Books: bureaucracy and stalled negotiations. No one seems terribly pleased that it took this long, but the sources quoted in the New York Times article were happy the logjam had finally been broken after all this time.

The thing I find the most interesting is how these lawsuits are unmistakable artifacts of the transition to the digital age. They came right at the cusp, when digital databases and redistribution were coming in, but before publishers had adjusted their publishing contracts to deal with digital rights. Since the digital rights had not been assigned in those original contracts, the authors—and, eventually, the courts—held that those digital rights still resided with the authors, and publishers who proceeded as if they were part and parcel of the print rights they held did so at their peril.

But by its very nature, this was also a lawsuit that can’t happen again. Ever since the Tasini lawsuit was filed, the publishers have amended their contracts to cover digital as well as print rights. So in a way, this lawsuit is also the last gasp of a long-gone era—because until and unless some entirely new medium is invented that current contracts don’t cover, publishers once again have all the rights fully in hand.

The Authors Guild is, of course, bragging about this success:

“For the Authors Guild, this is our bread and butter — to make sure the authors and journalists get paid,” said Mary Rasenberger, the executive director of the Authors Guild. “We’re small but we do punch above our weight.”

And Authors Guild member James Gleick, another plaintiff in the case, also expressed happiness over the eventual outcome.

After such a long and hard-fought victory, they’re certainly entitled. And, indeed, in such a matter as this where they’re fighting over clearly defined rights that a contract didn’t cover, they’re certainly entitled to their victory as well. It’s just when they try to limit the scope of fair use rights to keep Google from building a useful tool because they might possibly make some money out of it that the really need to go back to the drawing board.

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