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Copyright Laws Clash with Digital Technology

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2000
Gaynell Terrell

Are you guilty of violating copyright laws if you duplicate a white paper posted on the World Wide Web and e-mail it to a colleague?

A committee appointed by the National Research Council spent two years studying copyright and intellectual property protection in the digital age and concluded that the free market, not lawmakers, should take the lead in establishing public policy in this area.

Digital information is vital to a new economy based heavily on the Internet, said Randall Davis, committee chairman and computer science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Regulation of the distribution and use of digital information, however, should include the viewpoints of technology and business as well as the legal community, he said.

The committee recommended a broad range of issues that need to be addressed in this period of rapid technological change. They include:
  • The concept of publication should be re-evaluated because the Web has changed what "publishing" means.
  • Economic, technical and legal issues need to be resolved if archives and libraries are to digitally archive the nation's cultural and intellectual history. The report recommended that Congress enact legislation to permit copying digital databases for archival use.
  • The practice of licensing as it applies to software is worth watching because it could lead to contract law, rather than copyright law, governing information ownership. Contract law is not required to address such public policy issues as fair use.
Karen Hunter, a member of the committee and senior vice president at scientific publisher Elsevier Science Inc. of New York, said areas considered by the committee also included piracy, a concern to software and textbook publishers as well as moviemakers and record labels; and the library community's need for long-term access to information and privately held databases.

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