The Long Arm of Copyright Law


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

copyrighted work.

* 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.

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