When the subject of copyright comes up, especially in relation to the
Internet, many people assume that copyright only pertains to copying
music, reverse-engineering code, or printing and distributing books
online. The truth is that copyright affects everyone who uses the
Internet in very powerful and sometimes surprising ways. It's important
to know what the laws are, so you can know what your rights are in a
given situation...or where you might be making a mistake.
US Code Title 17 is the fundamental authority on copyright, however,
it's long and confusing, and it was written a long time before the
Internet existed. The Internet has been a revolution in many ways, and a
lot of the laws on copyright are still being redefined in the milieu of
the 'Net. Many of the recent headlines about copyright have been about
mp3s and questions about source code. Information about the DMCA alone
could fill up a textbook, but ; this article won't go into depth on
those topics. Instead, I'll focus on the Internet as a predominantly
text medium and the corresponding issues that arise relative to that
What text is protected by copyright? Copyright law protects "works of
authorship." That's a nebulous term. US Code Title 17, Section 102
defines it as including literary works. This includes everything from
novels and newspaper articles to "computer software, software manuals,
training manuals," and even text ads. As US Code says, it's not
possible to copyright an idea, but it is possible to copyright the
expression of an idea. A crucial concept in the copyright code is the
understanding that a work of authorship is copyrighted from the moment
it is "fixed" -- that is, set "in a tangible medium...[that] is
sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived...or
communicated for a period of more than transitory duration." In other
words, once it's written down or otherwise recorded such that it can be
communicated or shared. A letter can be copyrighted. A conversation
cannot (unless it is recorded). The important part is the idea that
works of authorship are copyrighted by default; no action needs to be
taken to copyright a work.
So anything that can be considered a work of authorship is copyrighted.
What rights does 'copyright' convey, then? There are seven fundamental
rights that copyright infers:
* The exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work.
* The exclusive right to create derivative works based on the
* The exclusive right to distribute the copyrighted work, whether
by sale, rent, lending, or other means.
* The exclusive right to perform the copyrighted work publicly.
* The exclusive right to display the copyrighted work publicly.
* The right of attribution -- in other words, the right to claim
ownership of the copyrighted work, and to prevent the author's
name from being falsely attributed to a work he did not create.
* The right of integrity -- in other words, the right to prevent
intentional distortion, modification, or destruction of a
copyrighted work, and to prevent the author's name from being
attributed to a distortion or modification of the work that may
be detrimental to the author's reputation.
So, that's what kinds text are copyrighted and what rights are conveyed
by the copyright code. But what does this mean in practice? That's where
things get fuzzier.
As an example of the types of communication affected by the definition
of copyright law: email is copyrighted. Each email is a work of
authorship fixed in a tangible medium stable enough to be communicated.
Quoting emails is tricky ground. Due to the fair use section of US Code
Title 17, a copyrighted work can be quoted or used in such a way that
the use is not considered a copyright infringement as long as certain
criteria are met. These include the purpose of the use of the work and,
in quoting an email, the purpose would be nonprofit and for the use of
replying to it; the nature of the copyrighted work, which is in this
case a nonprofit email; the amount of the quoted portion, which can vary
from mail to mail; and the effect of the use on the potential market
value of the copyrighted work, and rarely does quoting email affect the
e-mail's market value.
Given the provisions of fair use, quoting an email in a reply is
-probably- not a copyright infringement, but it's easy to see how close
it can come. Consider, though, two situations. In one case, you have
emailed a friend about a wild night you had. Your friend responds,
quoting your email in his response. Would you feel this was an
infringement of your copyright? Probably not. In the other case, though,
you send the same email and an unscrupulous mail system administrator
reads it. That admin thinks it's funny, so he posts it to his Web page.
Would you consider -that- a copyright infringement? Probably.
This is just one example of how questions of copyright impact even the
average Internet user. In one way or another, copyright law affects
everyone who uses the Internet. From the well-publicized copyright
questions raised by the DMCA, the Napster trial, and other convoluted
copyright concerns to the nuts-and-bolts Internet media like email and
Web pages, copyright has a long reach and affects many of the things we
do online. It's important to understand just what is and is not within
the realm of copyright law.