Intellectual Property Law and the Net: An Introduction

Yousuf Dhamee '96

Notions of authorship and ownership of intellectual property are heavily influenced by changes in information technology. Before the advent of the printing press storytellers and sages used old tales and bits of information to weave together narratives. "People in the oral age were little concerned about the origin of their sayings." (Norderhaug) It was accepted that individuals depended heavily on all that had come before them and little emphasis was placed on the importance of originality. When printed books eroded the importance of the spoken word creativity gradually became an important virtue for a text/author to possess.

The desire to protect individual author's rights to intellectual property lead to the establishing of copyright laws. Currently, federal law

protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of machine or device.

The author retains the right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform or display the work. Once an individual sells the rights to a work, however, the new owner may resell the possession to any individual at any cost. As Radcliffe points out, however, there is a difference between reselling a book which one has purchased and reproducing that text/changing it into another medium. Authors in the print age expect to capitalize on their ideas by selling books or papers. In theory, profit becomes a prime source of motivation for writers, intellectuals and scientists. "Society uses intellectual property protection to maximize progress."(Norderhaug) If thinkers fear that their ideas will be stolen by others who stand to take a share of the profits they will be hesitant to publish or announce their findings or ideas.

There is, however, a provision in the copyright law which allows "Fair Use" of another's text or document. For instance, one is allowed to quote copyrighted material in a term paper or school project. A recent court decision put forth four criteria for determining what constitutes fair use

  1. The purpose and character of the use
  2. The nature of the work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used
  4. The effect of the use on the economic value of the work

The law holds an extremely tolerant attitude towards the use of copyrighted material, as long as it is not for financial gain. Whether the work presents itself as fact or fiction also remains an important point. Using a scholarly essay as corroborating evidence is generally considered acceptable. Using a work of fiction, on the other hand, is more difficult under the law. The exact portion of the material that is utilized also helps determine the fairness of the use. For instance, giving away the last five minutes of a suspense film in a movie review is not acceptable. (Norderhaug) Finally, it is imperative that the use of a text does not deplete its worth to the artist.