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On the Reports of Copyrights Demise

On the Reports of Copyrights Demise

Roughly put, copyright gives a copyright holder certain exclusive rights over the work, including, mostfamously, the exclusive right to copy the work. I have a copyright in this book. That means, among other rights, and subject to some important exceptions, you cannot copy this book without my permission. The right is protected to the extent that laws (and norms) support it, and it is threatened to the extent that technology makes it easy to copy. Strengthen the law while holding technology constant, and the right is stronger. Proliferate copying technology while holding the law constant, and the right is weaker.

In this sense, copyright has always been at war with technology. Before the printing press, there was not much need to protect an authors interest in his creative work. Copying was so expensive that nature itself protected that interest. But as the cost of copying decreased, and the spread of technologies for copying increased, the threat to the authors control increased. As each generation has delivered a technology better than the last, the ability of the copyright holder to protect her intellectual property has been weakened.

Until recently, the laws response to these changes has been measured and gradual. When technologies to record and reproduce sound emerged at the turn of the last century, composers were threatened by them. The law responded by giving composers a new, but limited, right to profit from recordings. When radio began broadcasting music, the composers were held to be entitled to compensation for the public performance of their work, but performers were not compensated for the performance of their recordings. Congress decided not to remedy that problem. When cable television started rebroadcasting television broadcasts, the copyright holders in the original broadcasts complained their work was being exploited without compensation. Congress responded by granting the copyright holders a new, but limited, right to profit from the rebroadcasts. When the VCR made it simple to record copyrighted content from off the air, copyright holders cried piracy. Congress decided not to respond to that complaint. Sometimes the change in technology inspired Congress to create new rights, and sometimes not. But throughout this history, new technologies have been embraced as they have enabled the spread of culture.

During the same period, norms about copyrighted content also evolved. But the single, defining feature of these norms can perhaps be summarized like this: that a consumer could do with the copyrighted content that he legally owned anything he wanted to do, without ever triggering the law of copyright. This norm was true almost by definition until 1909, since before then, the law didnt regulate copies. Any use the consumer made of copyrighted content was therefore highly unlikely to trigger any of the exclusive rights of copyright. After 1909, though the law technically regulated copies, the technologies to make copies were broadly available. There was a struggle about Xerox machines, which forced a bit of reform[7], but the first real conflict that copyright law had with consumers happened when cassette tapes made it easy to copy recorded music. Some of that copying was for the purpose of making a mixed tape, and some was simply for the purpose of avoiding the need to buy the original recording. After many years of debate, Congress decided not to legislate a ban on home taping. Instead, in the Audio Home Recording Act, Congress signaled fairly clear exemptions from copyright for such consumer activity. These changes reinforced the norm among consumers that they were legally free to do whatever they wanted with copyrighted work. Given the technologies most consumers had access to, the stuff they wanted to do either did not trigger copyright (e.g., resell their books to a used bookstore), or if it did, the law was modified to protect it (e.g., cassette tapes).

Against the background of these gradual changes in the law, along with the practical norm that, in the main, the law didnt reach consumers, the changes of digital technology were a considerable shock. First, from the perspective of technology, digital technologies, unlike their analog sister, enabled perfect copies of an original work. The return from copying was therefore greater. Second, also from the perspective of technology, the digital technology of the Internet enabled content to be freely (and effectively anonymously) distributed across the Internet. The availability of copies was therefore greater. Third, from the perspective of norms, consumers who had internalized the norm that they could do with their content whatever they wanted used these new digital tools to make their content available widely on the Internet. Companies such as Napster helped fuel this behavior, but the practice existed both before and after Napster. And fourth, from the perspective of law, because the base technology of the Internet didnt reveal anything about the nature of the content being shared on the Internet, or about who was doing the sharing, there was little the law could do to stop this massive sharing of content. Thus fifth, and from the perspective of copyright holders, digital technologies and the Internet were the perfect storm for their business model: If they made money by controlling the distribution of copies of copyrighted content, you could well understand why they viewed the Internet as a grave threat.

Very quickly, and quite early on, the content industry responded to this threat. Their first line of defense was a more aggressive regime of regulation. Because, the predictions of cyberspace mavens notwithstanding, not everyone was willing to concede that copyright law was dead. Intellectual property lawyers and interest groups pushed early on to have law shore up the protections of intellectual property that cyberspace seemed certain to erase.


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