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History and Future of Copyright

To see into the future of copyright, we must first look to the past. In Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984), the main issue was whether Universal was entitled to damages due to Sony Betamax consumers recording some of Universal’s copyrighted works shown on commercially sponsored television, and whether Sony was liable for such copyright infringement because of their marketing of the videotape recorder’s. The Court noted in its decision that “[f]rom its beginning, the law of copyright has developed in response to significant changes in technology,” at 430.

“Sony C5 Betamax Video Recorder”by mrrobertwade (wadey)
is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.

We can see this response play out in the various revisions of copyright law at the turn of the 20th century. In 1909, the law was revised to extend copyright to sound recordings after the invention of the phonograph. In 1912, the law was again revised to include motion pictures. History of Copyright.

What is copyright going to look like in the future? Just like the printing press eliminated the need for copyists, one could say the Internet killed the need for distribution networks provided by publishers of print information. Much like video killed the radio star and Netflix killed Blockbuster.

The advent of new technology in a physical medium led to the expansion of copyright in the 1900’s. Now that technology is moving into a digital frontier, copyright laws need to be revisited.

Karl Fogel asks in The Surprising History of Copyright and The Promise of a Post-Copyright World, “Would creators still create, without centralized publishers to distribute their works? Even minimal exposure to the Internet is enough to provide the answer: of course they will. They already are.” Open source software, Creative Commons and OER are just a few responses to the idea of no copyright protection (or enforcement) in the digital world. File sharing, collaborating and remixing content is no different in the digi-verse than me emailing a classmate a copy of my notes from a lecture.

How would a digital citizen view copyright? As I stated previously,

I think the digital citizen would acknowledge the intellectual works of others. Give them the credit that the originator deserves. They would share co-ownership of any derivative works from that original work. But then they would also responsibly share, reuse, remix, mashup, and collaborate existing knowledge in order to increase and expand knowledge. The digital citizen is going to find new ways to build and create thinking based on other’s ideas. And they’re going to contribute to the open resources that are available already in the digital universe.

The idea that digital citizens have been, are and will be good stewards of content on the Internet should eliminate the need for copyright protections. According to Fogel, “The abolition of copyright law is optional; the real force here is creators freely choosing to release their works for unrestricted copying, because it’s in their interests to do so. At some point, it will be obvious that all the interesting stuff is going on in the free stream, and people will simply cease dipping into the proprietary one. Copyright law may remain on the books formally, but it will fade away in practice, atrophied from disuse.”


  1. Abdulallah Arbabzadah Abdulallah Arbabzadah July 7, 2019

    Do you think that music streaming platforms are one step forward to a day without copyright on the internet, as some musicians have complained about the pay-per stream rates of the websites?

    • dmwaters dmwaters July 9, 2019

      I have to admit that I still use old tech when it comes to music. If it’s not on the radio, I probably wouldn’t listen. But more and more creators are turning to free or low-fee access of their works on the internet, perhaps as a way to grow an audience or following. I love to download free e-books and if I like the author, I will pay to get the next novel in the series.

  2. Nina Fehrenbach Nina Fehrenbach July 7, 2019

    Hi Deana,

    I really enjoyed your take on copyright. I thought it was interesting how you looked to the future. I think that this is a really important concept and I’m glad you shared it with us! Do you think the future of copyright is totally independent of third parties?

    • dmwaters dmwaters July 9, 2019

      In the physical world, I still see the need for copyright protections for the creators (but not necessarily the distributors or third parties). In the virtual world, I see more creators waiving their rights to contribute to overall body of knowledge that should be the world-wide web. Sadly, there will still be those who look to the web to gain an advantage or wealth, and those who will misuse information for their own purposes.

  3. Liz Liz July 8, 2019

    Hi Deana,
    I like how you used several different modes or styles to teach about copyright. And, how appropriate to quote “Video killed the radio star.” Haha. The internet killed the video star!

    • dmwaters dmwaters July 9, 2019

      Thanks! I kind of dated myself with the betamax and first video shown on MTV.

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