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Special project: Internet Law
  Copyright Law
    • Introduction
    • Issues & short answers
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Surfers and Beach Owners: The Application of Copyright Law to the Internet

I. Introduction

Traditional applications of copyright are being stretched in new directions because of the introduction of the Internet1 as a new and central medium for communication, dissemination, and display. Exactly how existing copyright law intersects with developing Internet law is a topic of particular importance.

Copyright law provides a cause of action for holders of copyright against individuals who infringe on their rights. Section 106 of the U.S. Copyright Act4 enumerates a copyright holder's exclusive rights. That list of rights predates the Internet.5 As a result, the language of the statute provides limited answers to copyright issues arising in this new setting, and courts have had to extrapolate preexisting copyright doctrine to the Internet.

In the copyright infringement litigation paradigm, I have metaphorically represented the Internet users as "'Net surfers." In a potential liability suit, owners of copyright - whom I have metaphorically represented as "beach property owners" - claim that such surfers have infringed upon their copyright-protected work.

Much of the enacted legislation and burgeoning case law that deals with the Internet focuses on the general tension between holders of copyright and the Internet users, potential infringers on those copyright claims. Case law illustrates the courts' attempts to strike an equitable balance between public interest in access to copyright-protected work on the Internet and holders' ability to profit from their investments. Legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act2 ("DMCA") represents Congress' effort to respond to Internet service providers' ("ISPs") concerns about potential infringement liability.3

The following discussion will focus on several activities of Internet users that have prompted copyright holders to claim infringement. The topics covered here include: (1) the DMCA; (2) copyright infringement and defenses in the context of linking and framing; and (3) dissemination of digital music and other forms of information.

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