Copyright law represents a very important and long standing institution in the American legal code. Many people rely on copyright laws in order to make a living. Without copyright laws, authors, poets, singers, painters, and artists of every type would no longer be able to continue making money producing works of art.

Copyright laws were drafted to protect the 'intellectual property' of artists and other innovators. Copyright laws states that an artist is given sole ownership of his work, and can prohibit others from copying it without his or her permission. This makes it possible for artists to make a living by selling the rights of their work to publishers.

Without copyright law, art forms such as literature and music, long taken for granted in America, may simply cease to exist because artists would no longer be able to make a living creating art. It is easy to see that copyright laws in America are necessary and benefit society greatly.

However, the fact that copyright laws are good and necessary does not make them perfect. In fact, many people believe that there are several major flaws in today's copyright laws. Critics claim that modern copyright may last too long, thereby promoting stagnation, step on too many liberties, or cater too much to large corporations, ignoring the rights of individuals.

This essay will take a look at modern copyright law, and attempt to answer some of the questions raised around copyright law, focusing on whether copyright laws should be changed, and how they might be changed. This essay will review copyright law, and also examine some case studies in order to help the reader gain insight into the twisted world of controversy surrounding copyright law.

In order to make informed decisions regarding copyright law, it is important to have an understanding of how exactly these laws work. This essay will explore both general copyright law, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), a newly enacted law that provides further copyright protection in the age of digital information and high speed internet access.

The U.S. Copyright Office summarizes copyright law the best, saying, "Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of 'original works of authorship'" (Circular 1).

When an author, musician, or other type of artist creates a work of art, it is automatically protected under copyright, and the author is given certain rights. Contrary to the popular myth, it is not necessary for an author to place a copyright notice on a work of art for it to be protected under copyright law (Templeton).

The author's rights are carefully enumerated by the Copyright Office. The owner of a copyright has the right:

To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords; To prepare derivative works based upon the work;

To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;

To display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and

In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission (Copyright Office).

Copyright law wold be mostly useless, however, if the author is not allowed to somehow "lease" or "sell" these rights. If every artist was required to act as his or her own publisher, it is highly unlikely that many works of art would reach the general public. Luckily, the author is also given the ability to confer these rights on others, or even transfer the copyright itself to another person or corporation.

It is important to note that a copyright does not last forever! In most cases, a copyright expires 70 years after the author dies. After this time has passed, the work passes into the public domain, giving anyone the right to do whatever they want with the work. This ensures that classic works of art or literature are not lost in time because of legal issues. Because of this, it is possible to download many classic works of literature for free, from web sites such as Project Gutenburg (

An important part of copyright law is the concept of fair use. It is fair use that allows you to quote small sections of work freely, to reproduce some materials freely for educational use, or to quote a work for use in a critical review or parody. Because the courts have deemed it "fair" to use small pieces of others' works in your own, or to reference other work in order to criticize it, you are allowed to without obtaining specific permission from the copyright holder. It is because of fair use that I am able to quote others in this essay.

The copyright office is quick to warn people against abusing fair use, however. "The distinction between 'fair use' and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of works, lines, or notes that may safely be taken with out permission" (Register of Copyrights). Rulings on fair use are, by law, subjective. The thing to keep in mind is that for use of a work to be considered fair use, it must be fair, and not in violation of the "spirit" or copyright law.

Recently, copyright law has been complicated even future by the passage of a group of laws known as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or the DMCA. The DMCA was enacted to combat the widespread piracy that is found online, and strengthen protection of other high tech works of authorship, such as digital recordings and computer software.

The most important parts of the DCMA are laws know as anti-circumvention laws. These laws attempt to "prevent circumvention of technological measures use to protect copyrighted works" (Copyright Office). In other words, if a copyrighted work is somehow technologically locked, it is illegal for some to break the lock, attempt to figure out how to break the lock, or tell others how such a lock may be broken.

The best way to understand dilemmas raised by modern copyright laws is to take a look at several controversial issues involving copyright laws. Specifically, this essay will take a look at three issues: The Motion Association of America (MPAA) and DVDs, and the controversial Internet program, Napster.

Although many people may not know it, DVD movies are encoded using a special system called CSS (Content Scrambling System) and can only be decoded into video using special hardware or software approved by the MPAA. This encryption system is protected under the DMCA as a technological measure to protect a copyright.

This CSS system does more than just protect the copyrighted movie, however. DVD videos are also region encoded; a DVD released in the United States cannot be played by a DVD player in England, for example. This allows the MPAA to artificially inflate the price of DVDs in some foreign markets, which many people see as illegal and immoral price fixing.

While it is technologically possible to overcome this price fixing, it is not legally possible under the DCMA. When a clever computer programmer in Sweden discovered a way to circumvent the region encoding and play DVDs that he legally purchased on his computer, he was arrested for violating anti-circumvention laws very similar to those in the DCMA (

The MPAA is also threatening legal action on many web site owners that provide the program, known as DeCSS, and sued the online magazine,, for furnishing links to web site containing the program. The editor of and many others see this legal action as violating the first amendment, by disallowing people to speak freely about the CSS system.

Despite the moral issues, it is completely legal for the MPAA to pursue to legal action because its CSS system is protected against circumvention measures by the DCMA. The MPAA claims that CSS is necessary to keep people from making copies of DVDs and distributing them illegally. However, even with CSS in place, it is very easy for a DVD to be copied illegally! This case raises serious doubts about DCMA in the minds of many critics, who believe that the DCMA is not only completely unnecessary, but also violate freedom of speech and other liberties.

Another trouble spot in the world of copyright law is the Internet program, Napster. Napster is an Internet program that lets user who want to download music from the internet find other users willing to share music. Because it is possible to download copyrighted materials on Napster, many major recording labels, which are represented by the Recording Industry Artists Association (RIAA) are suing Napster, Inc. and intend to shut the program down.

Napster, Inc., claims that it is not in violation of copyright law, for several reasons. Napster, Inc. argues "that the non-commercial sharing of music is 'common, legal and accepted,' and said that increases in CD sales, in part driven by Napster usage, undermine record industry claims of harm" (Napster, Inc.). The company claims that their software does nothing illegal, and is protected by fair use, as well as free speech.

The RIAA, on the other hand, would have us believe otherwise. Despite the fact that CD sales have risen in the past year, the RIAA claims that Napster infringes on copyrights and is harming business. Unfortunately for Napster, Inc., the RIAA has been fairly successful in court, and we may yet see Napster shut down, even though it is highly possible that nothing it does actually infringed copyrights.

The one common thread that can be seen in these case studies is that modern copyright law seems to be slanted in favor of large corporations. To make matters worse, it is clear that large corporations have been able to bully the courts into ruling in their favor even when copyright law is not behind them!

From these facts, it seems that copyright law should indeed be revised. There are several possible ways to revise copyright law, and each have their strengths, but also their weaknesses.

One possible method of revising copyright laws is to make copyrights last for a much shorter period of time. This way, corporations will be forced to give up legal battles on older material, perhaps shifting their focus to the future instead of holding on to the past and creating unnecessary legal strife.

This strategy may do more harm than good, however, in respect to individual authors. It is often the case that a book or poem does not become popular until many years after it is written. If the copyright expires before the work can become commercially successful, then the author is left between a rock and a hard spot, with no legal right to make money off of his own work.

Copyright terms could be limited to include the life of the author only, but this also poses problems. It has been the case before that an author has died, and his or her family's own means of support was revenue from the author's past work. If the copyrights expire as soon as the author dies, his family might end up hard pressed to make ends meet.

Another idea that many people seem to be in favor of is revoking the DCMA. Critics believe the DMCA does much more harm than good, and that it is completely unnecessary. However, revoking the DMCA would make it hard for some high tech companies to hold onto their copyrights. The Internet makes it fairly easy to pirate copyrighted works, and anti-circumvention laws may be the only thing holding it in check.

Although the copyright systems may be flawed, there is no easy solution to revising them. There are several options, but each method has downsides as well as upsides. If copyright laws are to be revised, it will take a lot of thought and care to make the system better instead on inadvertently worsening it. The system may be flawed, but right now, it's the best we've got.

Final Paper for English 101, Fall Quarter, 2000
node your homework

Although the copyright systems may be flawed, there is no easy solution to revising it. There are several options, but each method has downside as well as upsides. If copyright laws are to be revised, it will take a lot of thought and care to make the system better instead on inadvertently worsening it. The system may be flawed, but right now, it's the best we've got.

I have to take exception to this, because it is so blatantly false that it's almost laughable. The current regime of copyright (in the United States anyway; other countries are being pressured to follow suit nonetheless, see TRIPS, WIPO, GATT, and WTO) had been created by what is quite clearly a corrupt legislature that has been blinded by money and has forgotten the real reason why copyright exists in the first place. Even a minor adjustment in the right direction like the Eric Eldred Act would do a world of good methinks, so it's ridiculous to say that "it's the best we've got." Arguably, we have reached the point where it almost can't possibly get any worse.

The above writeup first of all propagates a dangerous misconception that probably made AaronStJ say that copyright reform is a difficult task:

Copyright laws were drafted to protect the 'intellectual property' of artists and other innovators. Copyright laws (sic) states that an artist is given sole ownership of his work, and can prohibit others from copying it without his or her permission. This makes it possible for artists to make a living, by selling the rights of their work to publishers.

This may be how copyright actually works in practice, but it is hardly why copyright laws were created. Copyright law is not an attempt to "strike a balance" (a favored term among those who promulgate this misconception) between the rights of authors and the rights of the public. Copyright law rather tries to strike a balance between two sometimes conflicting interests of the public:

  1. The public wants there to be a rich and great variety of high-quality works available for its consumption
  2. The public also wants these works to be easily and readily available at minimum cost

A simple analogy would be the way all governments around the world handle public works projects like dams, highways, and bridges. In the construction of such things two conflicting needs of the public must also be balanced: the interests of the public to have the best quality and safest project possible, and their interest in not spending too much in order to construct the project, because there might be other more pressing needs. Obviously no one will build a bridge or a dam for free, so the government then has to decide how best to spend the public's money.

The copyright system is the same, except that in this case, the government isn't spending or saving public money, it decides to spend or save the public's rights and liberties when it makes decisions with regards to copyright. Copyright is by its very nature an abridgement of freedom of speech, but this abridgement of free speech is done in order to motivate authors to create more and varied works for the public to consume. "To promote the progress of science and the useful arts," as the Copyright Clause in the Constitution of the United States of America puts it. No responsible government should take these kinds of decisions lightly, as squandering the freedoms of its citizenry has far more harmful societal effects than a mere waste of money.

With this concept of copyright in mind, copyright reform is not such a daunting a task as it first seems. A government attempting to undertake this task need only take the needs and requirements of its citizens as its first priority (which is why most governments exist anyway in the first place!), and the rest should follow from there. There are two main parameters that a government can control with respect to copyrights: what privileges are actually granted to holders of copyrights (and what rights are taken away from the public in return) and how long these privileges are maintained by the copyright holder.

First, take one truly extreme case: no copyright at all. No privileges are granted to authors and no rights are abridged from the public. Surprisingly enough, and contrary to AaronStJ's assertions above, art forms such as music and literature (and computer software as well), would not "cease to exist." Nothing could be further from the truth! Copyright didn't exist in the days of William Shakespeare or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but they still managed to produce some of the greatest works of literature and music that the world has ever seen, still unsurpassed by today's authors and composers who supposedly have the "benefits" of copyright. People like Richard M. Stallman and Linus Torvalds create software with what is for all intents and purposes an absence of copyright, but that has not stopped their software from being useful, powerful, and of generally excellent quality. So there is still a "zero point energy", as it were, of human creativity that can do truly remarkable things even in the absence of any privileges granted in exchange for the act of creation.

Another consideration is that the abridgement of freedoms caused by copyright is actually harmful to creative endeavor when it reaches a certain point. This is because much human creativity depends on the works of others, and if other authors have been granted so much power for such a long period of time to prevent others from using their creations, that in turn causes creativity to stifle. This is why the public domain and fair use policies are so important. For this reason, some thinkers (such as FSF counsel Eben Moglen) even go so far as to say that human creativity flourishes in spite of rather than because of the existence of very strong copyright, and there actually does seem to be a strong argument for this assertion. Freedom encourages creativity.

It is, of course, not perfect, as there indeed many creative works are desired by the public that no one would do as a labor of love, as many of those works produced without copyrights are. Consider the continuing inability of the open source software movement to create a cohesive, usable desktop environment that mere mortals can actually use and understand. Microsoft, however much their software is so often scathingly described as bloated and buggy, has at least succeeded in this.

The other extreme example is today's copyright regime. Copyright lasts practically forever, thanks to the travesty that is the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, and embarrasments such as the DMCA and the impending SSSCA/CBDTPA have granted copyright holders sweeping powers over many forms of creative endeavor, almost enough to transform a nominally "democratic" nation like the United States into the first approximation of a totalitarian police state. Sure, we've got plenty of content, but this content tends to be bland, of low quality trained to the mass market, and has very little in the way of innovation and originality. The Big Brother of the copyright police is constantly looking over your shoulder to make sure you don't "steal" anything. To take the analogy between public works projects above, today's copyright regime might be the equivalent of building an immense bridge that completely covers a river below it at horrendous cost to the public. Public loses the benefits of the river as well. No responsible government would authorize such an extravagance.

Of course, the best deal for the public lies somewhere in between, but one is inevitably led to suspect that the optimum lies closer to the situation where there are no copyrights at all. Shorter terms for copyrights, less privileges granted to copyright holders would seem to be the best. Not zero, of course. The reality still is that there are things that are the public would want that no one would do unless they were compensated for it. However, this compensation should remain in proportion to the public's need for these things. This argues that copyrights should have different powers and durations based on what they apply to. Software copyrights might have a very short duration, perhaps 5-10 years, due to the volatility of the market and the shortness of product cycles, and somewhat higher levels of privilege granted. Copyrights on novels and other works of literature might last for 50 or so, as literary works actually increase in value as time goes by, but the powers given by copyright would be somewhat less.

Any government truly committed to the welfare of its citizenry should begin taking steps at reforming copyright with these considerations in mind.

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