The life of an e-book is quite different. Because of a simple technical feature of the Internet, copyright law regulates much more of the life of an e-book in cyberspace than of the life of a book in real space. As every action (on a digital network) produces a copy, and every copy (under the current regime of copyright) is presumptively within the reach of copyright law, every use of a copyrighted work in cyberspace amounts to a copyright event. Thus, to give an e-book to a friend involves a copy; it is therefore regulated by copyright law. To borrow an e-book from an Internet library involves a copy; it is therefore regulated by copyright law. Indeed, to have the computer read an e-book aloud involves making a copy; it, too, is therefore regulated by copyright law. All these "uses" of an e-book are within the reach of copyright's regulation, while the very same uses of a book in real space would not be.
It is this difference that creates the worry about extending copyright terms. Just at the moment that the Internet creates the opportunity for unimagined cultivation of our culture, the law is locking up yet another generation of our culture through copyright control. If a museum wants to create a Web-based exhibit about the New Deal, for example, including pictures and songs from the period, for another 20 years it must check the copyright status for all the material it might use, and get permission from copyright owners for any material still under copyright. If an archive such as Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive wants to digitize those books published in 1930 that are now out of print (all but 174 of the 10,027 books published in that year), it would have to trace the copyrights on each of these books for another generation. Or most urgently, if a film restorer wanted to digitize films from the 1930s, which, because printed on nitrate-based film, are all currently decaying, he or she would have to race against this inevitable decay to locate all the owners of the different copyrights bundled into a single film.
This additional 20 years of protection means 20 more years of licensing before content can be easily used on the Internet. And while lawyers don’t often recognize the burden the law imposes on business, businesses can easily recognize the burden of 20 more years of licensing. Imagine a world where used bookstores would have to pay royalties each time a used book was sold: Would there be any used bookstores? Or imagine a world where you had to sign a contract before you were allowed to link to another site on the World Wide Web. Would there be a World Wide Web? And if you think that’s bad, imagine having to deal with copyright term extensions for works created in 1923. You’d need to get the permission of unknown and effectively untraceable owners before you could put content on the Web. That is our future if copyright terms continue to grow.
This article was originally published on 12-12-2002