I. What is copyright law, who created it, and why do people think we need it?
Copyright law temporarily gives an author the sole right to copy and distribute his or her work. The idea that an author of a work should be able to control how his work is initially distributed goes way back in history. In fact, the Founding Fathers thought copyright laws were so important they included them in the Constitution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to make laws: “[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited time to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
If you read this closely, you’ll notice that copyright law wasn’t created to ensure creative people “get rich” off of the works they create. Instead, the Founding Fathers understood that the public benefitted greatly from individuals’ creative work. Yet they also understood that would-be creators needed an incentive to create. So they included an incentive in the Constitution: Bestowing Congress with the power to grant creators the exclusive right to control their creation for a limited period of time. And when that period expired, the public could legally copy or use that work for any purpose. Reflecting on copyright law’s benevolent purpose, the Supreme Court summarized it in one great little phrase: “[Copyright law exists to] stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good.” Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken, 422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975).
Originally, U.S. copyright laws were very limited. For better or worse, the length of time works were protected by copyright has continued to grow drastically over the past 200 years. After the most recent extension of the length of copyright protection, authors of creative works are now generally protected for their entire life plus 70 years after their death.
Generally, modern changes to copyright law can be looked at as responses to the technologies that have made it increasingly easier for people to make exact copies of another person’s work. In 1776, you needed an expensive printing press, expensive paper and ink, and a lot of time if you wanted to copy someone’s book. By 1976, all you needed was a copy machine and a handful of quarters.
In 1776, copying a stage play required transcribing the dialogue by hand, word-for-word, over multiple viewings. By 1985, copying a television show was as easy as programming a VCR. And by 2010, copying movies—including movies not yet released in theaters—is as simple as a few clicks of the mouse.
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Frequently asked questions about this copyright law issue
Why does the United States have copyright laws?
Who is hurt by copyright infringement?
What are the big problems with the copyright laws in the US?
Does the expansion of copyright laws help or hurt consumers?
Why do some people choose to give away their copyrighted material instead of trying to make money off of it?