Saturday, December 6, 2008

These Kids Today: An Attitudinal Shift

I have taught copyright law on an undergraduate level for a number of years. Recently, I have begun to notice a major change in my student’s attitudes. For years, while discussing the impact of new technology on copyright law, I have taught the case UMG Recordings, Inc. v. MP3.Com, Inc. (SDNY 2000) as an example of the arrogance of some of the early internet companies in their wholesale infringement of copyrights. In that case, the aptly named defendants blew what appeared to be a brilliant business strategy (they could have beat iTunes to the party) by introducing a new service which on the surface appeared to offer customers a place to store their cds online, but in reality involved the company “ripping” thousands of cds without permission from either the sound recording copyright owner or the music publisher. This seemed to me to be basic copyright infringement; the second circuit agreed.

A more recent case, although larger in both aspiration and scale involved the Google Library project, with its stated intention to scan nearly all existing important books online, irregardless of copyright issues. This case, The Authors Guild et, al. v. Google, Inc. was recently settled. The settlement is probably beneficial for both Google and society as a whole but it would have been fascinating to see how Google’s fair use defense would have played out on such a grand scale.

What is more interesting (and perhaps more frightening) is the reaction of my students to these cases. Whereas five years ago my students had a knee jerk response to the case (“string ‘em up”) they now seem to question why the company was even hauled into court. They have the same reaction to the Google case, as if they just assumed both actions would be protected by fair use.

This is an interesting development and is clearly linked to the growth of the internet and its prevalence in our lives. I don’t know why much more anecdotal information is needed to show why sales of physical music product is down but this may have broader implications from everything from libraries to network television. It may also prove the maxim that I have been blindly espousing for years: that the law cannot keep up with technology.

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