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M Magazine settles a lawsuit thanks to a Chicago legal aid group that helps artists.

After being sued last fall for wrongly bylining two articles written by freelancer Rob Bundy, M Magazine has quietly reprinted both pieces in its February issue, adding Bundy's credit and an acknowledgement of the earlier publication error.


Federal court records show the copyright-infringement lawsuit, which Bundy filed in September, was settled Dec. 27, and the suit was dismissed. Terms were kept confidential, but the timeline suggests that the republication of the articles and the accompanying disclaimer were part of the deal.


While Bundy is barred from commenting on the outcome, it's safe to say that the result is a victory for the writer, and by extension, for freelancers generally, who often complain of being hopelessly outgunned in their dealings with wealthy and powerful publications to which they contribute.


In his lawsuit, Bundy was represented by lawyers from the Chicago firm of Kirkland and Ellis. (Local representation was provided by Gass Weber Mullins.)


How did such high-powered legal talent come to his aid? Bundy's lawyers were recruited through a Chicago nonprofit with an unusual mission: Lawyers for the Creative Arts, which, as its name implies, helps with legal services and advice for artists of all kinds, including dancers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers and writers.


Intellectual property cases like Bundy's are only a small portion of LCA's work, executive director William E. Rattner tells me. Many cases the group takes are more routine – providing legal guidance to a painter or potter setting up a business to sell her work, for instance, negotiating leasing deals for a nonprofit theater, and other such mundane, but critical and potentially costly aspects of making a living from creative work.


“The only thing we turn away is something that really has nothing to do with our expertise,” says Rattner – such as a car crash injury lawsuit or handling an artist's divorce.


In the realm of journalism and allied fields, LCA has represented filmmakers and other content creators on matters such as using government freedom of information laws, says legal director Marci Rolnik. Last year a documentary filmmaker sought advice on how to film a public crowd at which police were expected to be present without running afoul of an Illinois law that has been used to prosecute people recording police encounters. (That law has since been thrown out.)


A group of Chicago lawyers looking for a way to contribute to society started LCA 40 years ago. The organization doesn't usually provide legal help directly. “We have hundreds of volunteer lawyers,” Rattner says. The group steers inquiring artists to those volunteers, who will work for free for low-income clients and at a discounted rate for others.


“It's a group of clients that's fun to work with,” Rattner says. “These are interesting, educated people you're dealing with. You're not trying to get some kid off who was arrested on Saturday night for hijacking a car.”


Similarly named organizations are found in some other cities, though Rattner says they're independent of each other, not part of one overall national organization.


The digital revolution has made disputes over copyright especially interesting and complex, Rolnik and Rattner agree. Stealing the creative output of another person once took a certain amount of time and effort, whether it was plagiarizing a book or copying a painting. “It's that much easier when you can sit in your room and with just a few clicks, steal somebody's work,” Rattner says.


Bundy's two stories, along with his photographs, were originally published in M's July issue. One, about the renovation of Bundy's Queen Anne house on Milwaukee's East Side, was attributed to M magazine editor Janet Raasch and gave Bundy second billing. The other, about a collection of rare pianos, was attributed to a completely different writer, with Bundy's photos credited to another photographer.


While the stories were in production, Bundy indicated he couldn’t agree to M's usual contract language, which forbids publication elsewhere without the magazine’s prior permission, because each story had already been committed to non-competing outlets. The lawsuit said Raasch agreed to permit those other publications.


The suit said the Queen Anne home story was assembled from two documents – Bundy's draft for the assignment and his longer, original version of the same story, which he sent so the editor could see if there were details she might want to add. As the piece went through editing, the suit said, his inquiries on the editing process and whether he could further assist in the story's final preparation were brushed off. Not until he got the magazine did he know the story was now “By Janet Raasch, with Rob Bundy.”


The suit said Raasch told Bundy the piano-collection story was misattributed because of “a production error.” The suit charged, however, that the misattribution of both articles was “willful,” though it doesn't ascribe a motive for the mistake.


In their answer to Bundy's suit, filed in October, attorneys for M's parent Conley Publishing and for Raasch acknowledged the error on the piano collection story but said it was accidental, not willful. The response denied any wrongdoing on the part of the magazine in attributing the Queen Anne story in part to Raasch.


With the settlement, why the magazine made its mistake and what Bundy thought the motive might be, are now left unresolved.


But Bundy evidently was grateful for LCA's assistance: The organization reports it's getting a four-figure donation from the writer.


Neither M Magazine nor its legal representation returned a request for comment.


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