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Copyright in the age of the 'Net

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 12, 2004
(Issue 2211, Living large with Linux)

While this column has repeatedly visited the issue of online music sharing ("piracy" to the Hollywood suits and their lawyers), that's really only a small part of a larger issue: The ongoing evolution of copyright law into something to be used against the people, rather than for.

But getting your head around copyright law can be tough – especially as often as it's been changing of late.

The original proposition was that copyright and patent law would provide a financial incentive for the creatively endowed to share their gifts with the rest of us. When Britain's American colonies broke away to form the United States, they took with them the British legal tradition – including copyright, trademark and patent law. The U.S. Constitution even allows for (but doesn't mandate) copyrights, trademarks and patents.

The reality of copyright law of late, though, has turned out rather differently than the founders seem to have intended – with copyrights used as a cudgel by corporate conglomerates trying to squeeze every possible nickel out of the public. (For a good overview of the history of copyright law, see Brad Fikes' article on the subject in the Fall 2003 edition of Turbula magazine under Culture and Technology.)

In the past few years, we've seen pre-teen children living in public housing projects sued by the Recording Industry Association of America, we've witnessed Disney strong-arming Congress to again extend the copyright term in order to prevent Mickey Mouse from entering the public domain, and we've seen federal district judges ban entire technologies because they could be used to violate copyright.

How any of that accomplishes the goal of promoting "the Progress of Science and useful Arts" (as stated in the Constitution) is a bit beyond your loyal correspondent's meager intellectual resources.

Learning more

Keeping us informed on the status of copyright law and its real-life impacts is the goal of the Center for the Public Domain.

Bookmark this site – while getting somewhat behind the times (hard to tell if it's still being updated), it is still one of the best stops on the Web for finding solid information on current intellectual property law (copyright, patent, trademark).

Another good site for finding info on intellectual property law is ibiblio, although they come at it more sideways than CPD. ibiblio is devoted to copyright-free materials, from open-source software (they have a heck of a Linux software archive on their site) to the establishment of online "commons." There is some fascinating stuff going on there, and unlike CPD, is fully up to date and alive.

Creating a 'commons'

One of ibiblio's side projects is Project Gutenberg (, an effort to provide online text files of various books and other works where the copyright has expired. From Aristotle to Homer, from H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain adventures to the works of Alexandre Dumas, from O. Henry and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Dostoyevsky and Dickens, much of the world's greatest literature can be found here.

Is it is nice as curling up with a book on the couch?

Probably not. But it is cheaper.

And more importantly, it fulfills the promise of the Internet as a digital "commons" - a place where no one claims ownership, where everyone is welcome to contribute.

Don't find the non-copyrighted book you want at Project Gutenberg? Buy an inexpensive copy and type it in yourself – they'll be grateful for the help.

What isn't here, of course, is almost anything from the 20th century, all of which is still covered by copyright. One would hope that eventually Hemingway and Camus and Heinlein and, one supposes, even Norman Mailer should all end up here as well, available for future generations to read.

Besides, there is something very right about Plato's works, originally set down on papyrus now being shared digitally. Or Julius Caesar's works in their original Latin also now stored online.

What would be nice would be a similar effort to have public-domain versions of music whose copyrights have expired – Beethoven and Bach and Mozart. (Don't know that it isn't out there; just haven't found it yet.)