Copyright Law On The Internet

Copyright law is like politics and religion. Everybody has an opinion, and debates about who is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ tend to get nasty. OK, so it’s not exactly like politics and religion, but it’s no less controversial.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 11/9/1998; LegalResearcher.com; publisher: New York Law Publishing Company

In the United States, authors’ rights originate from the Constitution, which provides for authors and inventors to retain rights to their works and inventions. Congress codified copyright rights in the Copyright Act. The US Copyright Office remains one of the best starting points for copyright law. In fact, for years, I carried around the brochure entitled “Copyright Basics” that I ordered from the Copyright Office. Today, that same booklet is available on the Web (http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright/circs/circ1.html), as are numerous other documents. But I’d strongly suggest reading that booklet cover to cover before venturing to any other site that discusses copyright law.

Since the Copyright Act is federal law with a Constitutional basis, federal courts from the various circuits are often called on to interpret the Copyright Act. Other courts often get into the game, further confusing matters. As my law school equities professor (Prof. David Gregory) said, however (and I paraphrase), what the state courts say is not the law. What the circuit courts say is not the law. And what the dissenting Supreme Court opinions say is not the law. The only thing that is the law is what the majority of the Supreme Court says is the law. And so the best way to truly learn the law is to read the major Supreme Court decisions about the law, to read only the majority opinions, and to read all of them. (I loved that class.)

I would add to that list that pending legislation is not the law.

For an excellent summary of cases on copyright law, see the Perkins Coie Internet Case Digest (http://www.perkinscoie.com/resource/ecomm/netcase/Cases-04.htm). You’ll quickly notice a dearth of Supreme Court cases on this subject, which to me suggests that these cases are very fact-specific and are decided on those grounds. For Supreme Court cases, see Stanford University’s fair use site (http://fairuse.stanford.edu/primary/index.html#caselaw).

Since many attorneys may be called upon to advise their clients on compliance with copyright law, you (or your clients) might want to check out some of the better consumer-oriented copyright sites. These include “The Fine Print” column on musicuniverse.com (http://www.musicuniverse.com/garage/finebusiness/fineprint.html). IP Magazine (http://www.ipmag.com/) is also an excellent starting point.

Finally, for some lengthy academic overviews of copyright law, including how the Internet changes everything (or doesn’t, depending on you perspective), see an article entitled “The Coming Tidal Wave of Copyright Issues on the Internet” by Fenwick and West partner David L. Hayes (http://www.fenwick.com/pub/wave.html). See also “Copyright and the Free Flow of Information” by Faegre & Benson attorney Calvin L. Litsey (http://www.faegre.com/areas/areaip25.html).

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