Copyright in Cyberspace: Introduction

Professor Stacey L. Dogan
Northeastern University School of Law

Who, if anyone, "owns" the content that travels through cyberspace? What rights flow from such ownership? How much control should content owners have over the use and dissemination of their works over the Internet? Legislators, courts, and others have struggled with these questions since the explosion of the Internet as a communications medium. At one end of the spectrum, proponents of strong copyright protection argue that, because of the remarkable ease with which digital material can be "copied" and transmitted over the Internet, the law should provide more and better tools to prevent members of the public from "copying" writings, music, graphics, software, and other works without the author's permission. Opponents of this view challenge the notion that digital transmissions constitute "copies" at all, and argue that the public should be allowed to share, lend, and pass on digital materials just as they have traditionally done with copies of books, music, and other copyright-protected creations. These advocates contend that with the growth of copy-protection and access-protection technology, content owners have little need for enhancements in the copyright law; to the contrary, they say, the focus of copyright law must shift to protect the interests of the public, particularly its need for a robust public domain.

This Module will explore the fundamentals of copyright law as applied to cyberspace. We will begin in section 1 with a brief introduction to copyright law, designed for those with no prior knowledge of the field. Section 2 will review the requirements for copyrightability, with an emphasis on digital works and databases. The third section will turn to the exclusive rights of copyright owners, reviewing the acts that courts have found to constitute infringement in the digital environment and asking how these evolving rules will apply to common Internet behavior such as linking and framing. This section will also review the case law regarding the liability of Internet Service Providers and other third parties for infringemetn initiated by others. Section 4 will summarize the fair use defense to copyright infringement and evaluate how defendants have fared in asserting the defense in Internet cases. Finally, Section 5 will study the key provisions of -- and the controversy surrounding -- the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed by Congress in the closing days of the 1998 Congressional session.

  1. Introduction to Copyright
  2. Requirements for Copyrightability
  3. Exclusive Rights and Infringement on the Internet
  4. Fair Use and the Internet
  5. Digital Millennium Copyright Act
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