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Copyright freedom in the Internet age

4 March 2002

The US Supreme Court is to hear an obscure copyright case which will bring centre-stage the issues relating to freedom in the Internet age. The case involves what has been disparagingly referred to as the 'Mickey Mouse Protection Act', i.e. the 1998 law which extended copyright for 20 years, and concerns the question of whether the US Congress exceeded its authority in making that extension. The US constitution authorises the granting of copyright 'for limited times', but just how 'limited' might this be, and does 20 years exceed this?

Now that the Internet has made it so easy to use and propagate copyrighted property, the issues this will raise are right at the centre of debates about intellectual freedom. This was first brought to public attention by the group of academics led by Professor Boyle of Duke University, who argued that attempts to define copyright ever more tightly and restrictively amount to a 'second enclosure movement' and must be resisted as an attempt to control ideas which should be in the public domain.

The case to be heard by the Supreme Court relates to this. Lawrence Lessig, the celebrated legal theorist of the Internet, recently wrote in Wired magazine: 'If the internet teaches us anything, it is that great value comes from leaving core resources in a commons, where they are free to build on as people see fit. We are now corrupting this core, and this corruption will in turn destroy the opportunity for creativity that the Internet built.'

This extremely important case raises issues which will affect not just academics, but also authors, artists, musicians, scientists, and the publishing, music and entertainment industries. The need to redefine copyright protection in the age of mass information will have to be balanced against the requirement for a free flow of ideas to fuel future innovation. This promises to be a fascinating debate.