Copyright protection in a new eraSince the invention of moveable type, copyright law
has always evolved along with technology. With each new
invention -- camera, phonograph, photocopier -- a new
challenge arises. The World Wide Web poses the latest,
most daunting challenge to the status of copyright law.
The authors of the U.S. Constitution didn't recognize privacy, but they did recognize property, and intellectual property was well protected. The founding fathers sought to reward creativity by granting people exclusive control of the products of their intellectual and physical labor. The first U.S. copyright law further protected and rewarded creators, and thus served to foster the dissemination of ideas.
American inventors, their creative products protected by law, helped fuel the rise of the Industrial Age. But it wasn't until the Information Age of the 20th century that technological advances began to strain existing copyright laws beyond their limits. Home video recorders and cassette tape recorders threatened artists' control of their creative works, as did photocopiers. It became clear that creators of computer software could count on losing a percentage to software pirates. Congress and the courts continually struggle to keep pace with technology.
Products the founding fathers never dreamed of now challenge the fundamental protections granted to intellectual property. Never before have so many been capable of copying so much, with so few repercussions. U.S. copyright laws do cover what we see on the Web. However, some elements are protected more clearly than others.
Ownership rights of photographs, writings and artwork on the Web are fairly straightforward. With a few exceptions such as work for hire, a work's author or creator owns the right to distribute and profit from that work. The only requirements: the work must be original, and it must be fixed in a tangible medium, be it printed page or HTML.
Web page design is a more difficult issue, and remains unresolved. Current U.S. copyright law does not protect formats or layouts in printed publications. A format includes, among other things, the general plan or organization of a work, and the size and shape of a publication. A layout is the plan or arrangement of elements on a page .
The federal Copyright Office arrived at this lack of protection for layouts and formats after much deliberation. It finally decreed that no one person or company should have exclusive control over the limited ways in which stories, pictures and type can be arranged on a page, for fear that litigation over layout issues could halt publication of a constitutionally protected literary work .
However, it is possible to copyright computer source code as text, thus protecting the work as it is expressed in fundamental computer language . This could be taken to mean that an original Web page design has a unique HTML code that is protected by copyright law. According to Palo Alto attorney Mark Radcliffe, "Site design is potentially copyrightable, though copyright protection is thin," .
Additionally, ignorance of and indifference to copyright law run high in hyperspace. The frontier remains far from settled, and the Web page design issue isn't likely to wait for the law to catch up.
Sources and hot links:
 Kent R. Middleton and Bill F. Chamberlain, "The Law of Public Communication," Longman 1988.
 "Pricing and Ethical Guidelines," Graphic Artists Guild Inc. 1991.
 Todd Woody, "Will Para-sites Poison the Web?"
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Copyright Jane Medley 1996