Copyright Law Faces Sea Change Courts Lean toward Greater Access to Art on the Internet Versustraditional Ownership

Article excerpt

A scene that could come from any of the past four centuries: An artist paints a picture and attempts to exhibit and sell the work.

A scenario, however, that has been only possible over the past decade: The artist's image is scanned into a computer, placed on the Internet, and downloaded worldwide, wherever someone wants a copy.

Fortunately, for Michael Whelan, a book illustrator in Danbury, Conn., a friend of his happened to be looking through a computer bulletin board when he came upon a few of Mr. Whelan's images that he recognized. They were being offered for sale. Nowhere did it say that Whelan was the artist, and, in fact, the copyright notice had been deleted. The images themselves had been somewhat altered. In one case, mountains were replaced by a sign that said "Welcome to the World of Macintosh." At least two copyright laws were violated by an unknown number of electronic services that had appropriated Whelan's work. But if Whelan was fortunate to have a friend find his work on a computer bulletin board, New York City illustrator Bill Lombardo was a little less fortunate. A friend found his work on a bulletin board, but, before "I could bring a lawsuit, the company that had done this had gone out of business," he says. What is copyright? Copyright refers to the right to make and distribute copies of one's artwork. It involves the exclusive use of private property. And it often appears in conflict with the computer world, which values usable and immediate public access. "The ethos of the Internet," says Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University in New York City, "is that anything online may be downloaded, cut, copied, and sent along to others." Copyright has proven to be an elastic concept over the two centuries that it has existed in United States law. Statutes first referred exclusively to the printed word but were later amended to encompass works of visual art. They were then expanded to permit artists' ownership of copyright even after they sold the physical artwork, and again broadened to include moral rights (preventing intentional alteration, damage, and destruction of the physical work of art). Periodic judicial rulings also have widened the scope of copyright protections here and there. All these changes and additions have given increased control to creators over their artwork. The Internet, on the other hand, makes that control all the more tenuous because of the computer world ethos and the technology to place written and visual information wherever there is a computer, a modem, and a telephone. …