Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

An Education in [C]opyright Law: A Primer for Cyberspace

Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

An Education in [C]opyright Law: A Primer for Cyberspace

Article excerpt

The Law of Copyright

Copyright law has been a hot topic of late. This has never been more evident than with the emergence of the Internet as a teaching tool. The Internet was once a research project. Today it is the greatest computer system in the world. Also known as the net or cyberspace (1), this information super highway offers a tremendous amount of material. The information age has created greater concerns about copyright law.

Myths and Mistakes Concerning Copyright Law

There are many misconceptions about copyright law. For example, many believe that one needs to provide notice in order to possess a copyrighted work (2). Some think that registration is necessary or that photocopying requires express permission from the author in all cases. Also mistakes abound as to the defense of copyrights as well as thoughts of the dreaded "copyright police" coming to arrest against alleged infringement violations (3). Copyright law is simply misunderstood.

There is no physicality to copyright protection. A copyright is a type of intellectual property, that is, an attachment of intangible rights occurs when certain rules are followed. It is reminiscent of our federal or state constitutional protections. For example, even though a constitution could burn in a fire we would not lose the fundamental freedoms contained therein. A closer examination reveals that there are several privileges afforded by copyright law.

What Is Copyright Law?

There are numerous authors who have addressed the subject of copyright law (4). The reason is that copyright has been around for most of our country's existence. In fact, the fundamental basis of copyright law stems from the United States Constitution. In Article 1, Section 8, clause 8, we find that the founding fathers wished to promote science and the useful arts by securing an exclusive right to writings. Unfortunately, the fathers did not explain themselves. Perhaps the most important statute in the area of copyright is the Copyright Act of 1976 (The Copyright Act) (5). It provides the basic framework for all of our present statutes.

Section 106 of the Copyright Act provides the owner of a copyright certain exclusive rights. In general they include five safeguards:

1. Reproduction of the copyrighted work,

2. Preparation of derivative works (adaptations) based upon the copyrighted material,

3. Distribution of the work,

4. Performance of the work publicly and

5. Displaying of the work publicly (6).

Copyright is a legal device. One must carefully examine several factors in order to determine whether or not copyright law is applicable (7). Note that copyright law, for the most part, is federal in nature. The laws of other countries must be respected. This work will not address foreign jurisdictional matters such as the international Berne Convention, but will primarily focus upon the laws of the United States while making reference to certain treaties and related concepts.


A major requirement in copyright law is that the work be original in order to have copyright protection. The work must be independently conceived by its creator. In Feist, the U.S. Supreme Court explained that the primary objective of copyright law is "not to reward the labor of authors, but [t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts ..." (8). The case involved the determination of lack of originality in printed, white phone directory pages. However the test is not one of newness. For example, assume a teacher in Orlando writes an article called "Understanding Copyright Law." Another teacher in Omaha has just completed a very similar article with the same name. Neither knows of the other's efforts. Both instructors have created an original work; hence copyright protection is afforded to each of them. Courts would of course look very closely at works that seem to mirror others or outright copy them verbatim as the likelihood of violation is more clear in these circumstances. …

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