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
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