Copyright Laws in the Digital Domain

Copyrights and Intellectual Property

Like other transformational technologies, the growth of digital information technologies has posed new challenges for our traditional interpretations of individual rights and protections. The World Wide Web, for example, brings a wealth of information and material directly to your home, office, or lab. At the press of mouse button or a keystroke, text, pictures, graphics, sounds, music, or video are instantly transported to you. All of this stuff constitutes what is glibly called "content" in the industry. In legal circles, content is called "intellectual property." The point is that this content is provided by somebody and is likewise created by somebody. And, protecting the rights of creators and producers is one of the hallmarks of our society.

Traditionally the creators of intellectual property are protected by a broad assortment of laws. There are laws protecting trademarks, patents, and trade secrets. Trademarks protect words, names, symbols, and logos normally used in commerce. Patents protect the rights of individuals who make discoveries or inventions. Trade secrets cover information, designs, and devices that companies wish to keep secret in order to retain commercial advantages from their creations. Copyrights are another form of protecting intellectual property. Copyrights protect authors of original works from damages caused by others who might improperly reproduce or use materials without their permission. Copyrighted materials include

  • literary works
  • musical pieces
  • dramatic works, dance, and pantomime works
  • pictorial, graphic, or sculptured pieces
  • motion pictures and video
  • sound recordings
  • architectural designs

These laws are not extended to intellectual ideas or discoveries, to concepts and principles, nor to a process or procedure. In short, copyrights protect the expression of an idea and not the idea itself.

The Foundations of Copyright Law

Some form of copyright protection has existed as far back as Roman civilization. In Rome, authors were recognized only as creators of original manuscripts. These could be sold for a fee, but the author's rights did not extend beyond their possession of the original. Manuscripts were treated in the same manner as any other form of tangible property. All associated rights were transferred to the new owner. Authors had no say-so in their use or even claims to attribution. Selling a manuscript would be like selling an automobile today. Once I have sold my personal vehicle to another, it is the buyer's property and may be disposed of as the buyer sees fit.

The invention of the movable type printing press was clearly a watershed event for our modern concepts of authorship and copyrights. Prior to its invention, there were few opportunities to copy or plagiarize written works. Copies were scarce; and the means of producing them were controlled by a few. Cases of illegal copying were likewise easy to prove. The technology of movable type printing changed all of this.

Printed copies became plentiful and more economical to consumers. In a short time, an entire industry of publishing emerged. The first national statute establishing copyrights was enacted in England in 1710. It arose expressly because of the abuses exercised by some members of publishing industry. The statute founded the notion of limited copyrights of authors extending for set period of time. Convictions for printing or importing illegal copies were punishable by fines.

The moral of this brief historical survey is a simple one. There is no universal or natural law of copyrights. Copyright laws usually reflect the balance of interests among affected parties. Furthermore, the concept of copyrights and authorship have always been founded on changing societal conditions--and especially those driven by technology.

It is a common misconception today that copyright laws exist for the purpose of restricting the public's access to and the free flow of information. While these are indeed consequences sometimes resulting from the laws, these are not their intended ends. To the contrary, the ostensible purpose of copyright protections are to provide for the public good. U.S. copyright legislation is founded on the Constitutional provision to "promote the progress of Science and Useful Arts."

The basic idea is to mediate between two extreme conditions: the exclusive monopoly of intellectual property vs. one in which there are no protections for intellectual expression or achievements at all. In the latter case, authors would have little incentive to produce if there were no means to secure value from these efforts. On the other hand, a monopoly would also stifle the growth of knowledge, since few would have the opportunity to build upon previous ideas and earlier knowledge. Either scenario would likely lead to a stagnation of ideas and information. This would obviously be a detriment to the public's interest. For these reasons, limited copyright laws have been established to create a delicate balance to avoid these two extreme conditions.


©Abernethy and Allen, 2003.
Furman University
Last modified: 11/03