Recent Laws Affecting Copyright on the Internet

New copyright laws passed by Congress protect rights of copyright owners online, but limit significantly the public rights of access to information on the Internet. The No Electronic Theft Act (NET), signed into law by President Clinton in December 1997, makes it a federal crime to willfully reproduce or distribute on the Internet copyrighted works with a total retail value of more than $1,000. NET penalizes both commercial and non-commercial uses of protected works. The requirement of willfulness of action can be satisfied by demonstrating a reckless disregard on the part of the alleged infringer.

This means that a devoted Star Trekker who runs a fan site may be in violation of this statute whether he knows it or not. First, a simple picture of the starship Enterprise may be valued at more than $1,000. Second, Paramount Pictures, a company that owns copyright to the show, has made it clear that it considers unauthorized copying of various elements from its shows a violation of copyright. By disregarding Paramount's policy, a fan may involuntary show willfulness in violating the company's copyright.

Congress has recently extended copyright protection of literary works from 50 to 70 years, limiting considerably a number of original works in the public domain. This means that screenplays for shows created in the 80s and 90s will be free to public use only in the middle of the next century at the earliest.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, signed into law in October 1998, provides the Internet services with discretion to decide which online uses qualify as fair uses of copyrighted works and which do not. The law requires Internet service providers to cease access to web sites that copyright owners consider infringing. Webmasters of closed sites may appeal this decision, in which case the action is likely to wind up in court. It is safe to predict that not many fans have enough money to endure lengthy legal battles with powerful corporations such as Paramount, Fox, or others.

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