Copyright Law in the Digital Age

Copyright Law in the Digital Age

Diane and her guests discuss the role of copyright laws, how long a copyright should last, and the challenges of protecting new creative works in the digital age.

Copyright laws emerged with the arrival of the printing press in 15th-century England. The printing patent served as a way to protect guild members from those who would copy their work. Today, we live in a world of digital abundance, where everyone is both a creator and a user. As more and more information is produced and shared online -- literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works -- some believe we need more ways to protect it without discouraging creativity. Diane and her guests discuss the role of copyright law in the digital age.


William Patry

senior copyright counsel at Google and author of "How to Fix Copyright"

Michael Carroll

director, Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property, Washington College of Law,American University and founding board member of Creative Commons, Inc.

Sandra Aistars

Executive Director of Copyright Alliance

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Program Highlights

The number of people in the world with access to the internet is estimated at more than 2 billion and all of those are able to share lots of information quickly, easily, and affordably. As a result, some believe we need new ways to think about protecting original content without discouraging creativity. Our guests explore how copyright law has changed in the digital age.

What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyright is a bundle of exclusive rights granted to artists who create an original work of authorship. It allows the creator exclusive rights to copy, distribute, publicly perform, or make adaptations to creative work. Limitations to copyright include fair uses. Copyright protects both published and unpublished work. Interestingly, this issue poses a problem for historians wishing to publish old letters as part of their research. The letter-writer owns the copyright to the letter, so in order to republish it, the historian would have to contact the writer for permission - not just the recipient.

Public Confusion About Copyright

There is a lot of confusion about copyright, Michael Carroll said, because the law is quite complicated. "The incentives are different in different industries for different kinds of creators," Carroll said. Copyright is automatic, and for some people, that's good news. But Carroll points out that for others, who want to create something to share online, this system might not be desirable. This is where projects like Creative Commons can be useful, Carroll said.


Copyright enforecement online can be difficult, according to Sandra Aistars. "It's one thing to say that the copyright lasts for the life of the artist plus 70 years. But in reality that term is far, far shorter because as soon as you've put something out publicly and publish it in the digital age it's very quickly disseminated online, often without your authorization. So that term is less meaningful," she said.

The Shepard Fairey Case

A caller asked about the recent copyright case involving artist Shepard Fairey's famous poster of President Obama that was taken from a photographer's print of the president and altered. The original copyright holder of the photograph took Fairey to court, and the case was eventually settled out of court. Both Carroll and William Patry said they believed what Fairey did fell under fair use, but Aistars disagreed. She said that Fairey's work appeared to be very solidly based on the original photograph and that Fairey recreated all the creative elements of the photographer's original image in his own work, rather than achieving a truly transformative meaning that would be necessary for the work to fall under fair use.

You can read the full transcript here

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