Digital Copyright

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In 1998, copyright lobbyists succeeded in persuading Congress to enact laws greatly expanding copyright owners’ control over individuals’ private uses of their works. The efforts to enforce these new rights have resulted in highly publicized legal battles between established media and new upstarts.
In this enlightening and well-argued book, law professor Jessica Litman questions whether copyright laws crafted by lawyers and their lobbyists really make sense for the vast majority of us. Should every interaction between ordinary consumers and copyright-protected works be restricted by law? Is it practical to enforce such laws, or expect consumers to obey them? What are the effects of such laws on the exchange of information in a free society?
Litman’s critique exposes the 1998 copyright law as an incoherent patchwork. She argues for reforms that reflect common sense and the way people actually behave in their daily digital interactions.
This paperback edition includes an afterword that comments on recent developments, such as the end of the Napster story, the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing, the escalation of a full-fledged copyright war, the filing of lawsuits against thousands of individuals, and the June 2005 Supreme Court decision in the Grokster case.

3 thoughts on “Digital Copyright

  1. Gregory L Dyas
    20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Copyright’s uncertain future, April 19, 2001

    Litman’s timely book, coming two years after the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) radically altered the landscape of copyright law, confronts the current issues we face involving Napster and other file sharing programs, pay-per-use efforts in the software and entertainment industries, and the seemingly arcane and counterintuitive nature of copyright law itself. Writen for the layman, it’s easily understandable and a breezy, deeply interesting read for people concerned about how their rights to use the things they buy have changed and may change further in the future.

    Part polemic against the encroaching magnification of corporate over individual rights to works, part history of the development of copyright law in the US, Litman’s main points as a law professor specializing in copyright law involve the historical lack of representation of individual consumers’ rights in the marketplace. Congress historically has simply allowed “interested parties” to collaborate on agreements that Congress then enacted into law. Unfortunately, and as Litman shows again and again, businesses and consumers not at the bargaining table got the short shrift and nascent new industries based on revolutionary technologies (such as piano rolls, movies, etc) were hindered in their development. Those involved in the copyright law negotiations (libraries, unions, and major existing industries and trade groups) tended to get limited exceptions, deals, and special exemptions, while our representatives in Congress have traditionally simply allowed them their way.

    Litman then discusses 1998’s DMCA and how it, to a degree previously unseen in copyright law, exposes consumers to the will of the producers of works and the vagarities of copyright law, and creates the possibility of a world where one is virtually unable to use their own computer without the permission of the company that owns the operating system and can be forced to pay every time they open a program. Before the microchip, controlling how someone used a product once they bought it was an impossibility and once a person purchased an item they had defined usage, copying, and sharing rights. Now however software companies, movie studios, and the recording industry are examing and testing technologies that allow them to parcel out “use” rights that limit how many times you can watch a movie you’ve bought, play a game you’ve purchased, or listen to a song you’ve already paid your money for, and it’s all now legal under the DMCA.

    Her cogent explanations of the incoherencies and vagueness of the DMCA itself were able to show me in easy to understand language the problems with the law and the need for a reform of copyright that matches the public perception of their rights to use the things they buy to learn and develop themselves and yet retains the incentive for creation and development of new works by individuals and industries.

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  2. "dukelawstudent"
    10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Where did my fair use go?, July 13, 2004
    “dukelawstudent” (Cary, NC United States) –

    This book is essentially a primer on the mess we’ve gotten into with regards to copyrights and digital media. Litman explains both why the current copyright regime is an ill fit to the “Information Age” as well as how we got here.

    Litman’s explanation of how Congress has essentially abdicated its responsibilities by turning over the drafting of copyright law to the entrenched business interests is scary. But more frightening are the implications: When major chunks of our culture are locked behind individual use licenses, little room is left for innovation and creativity. The end result, I fear, will be a world where every last piece of information and our entertainment will be fed to us by Disney, Time Warner, and a few other mega-corporations. Not that I have anything against those firms, but a 35-page menu listing only variations of spaghetti is not my idea of fine dining.

    Copyright used to be about a bargain – society gave limited rights to copyright owners to encourage creativity – in return society obtained building blocks for further creativity. But the model has changed – now the discussion (such as it is) is about the absolute property rights of the media company. (We don’t even talk about “authors” anymore – who wrote “Finding Nemo” anyway?) The result is that the public’s end of the bargain has been taken away – fair use is of little use anymore, and the first sale doctrine (which allows you to read, re-read, loan, sell, or destroy this book) has been emptied of any meaning with regards to digital media.

    Litman does a great job in explaining how ugly the current copyright laws are, and she demonstrates clearly how the system threatens to stifle innovative new ways to communicate and entertain via the Internet. There is clearly room to build on her arguments to demonstrate that the current regime will likely stifle creativity in general. For more on that general theme, I recommend following up Litman’s book with one or two by Lawrence Lessig.

    All in all, this book is an easy-to-read but very illuminating starting point in understanding exactly how threatening, and intolerable, the copyright regime has begun. Read it, and weep.

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  3. Siva Vaidhyanathan
    11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Much Needed Book, May 4, 2001
    Siva Vaidhyanathan (Charlottesville, VA) –

    Most of what we have read about copyright in the digital era either is optimistic about the influence of technological protection schemes superceding the more democratic system of copyright or alarmist about “theft.” Litman has done us a wonderful service by explaining that there is more at work in the world of cultural and information regulation than most of us suspect.

    We are in fact about to be victims of a new technological regime that will severely restrict access to copyrighted works. In clear language, Litman explains how we got into this mess.

    I hope everyone who reads and writes buys this book.

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