Law and the Wild, Wild Web

A pizza or a new car can't be squeezed through an Internet cable (though they can be ordered that way). But the Web does do an amazing job of delivering ideas - "intellectual property."

These ideas may be in the form of the written word (now provided by books, newspapers, and magazines), music (CDs and radio), or moving images (movies or TV shows). As the Web continues to speed up - through better file compression and broadband lines - it will become a more desirable medium for all these, especially video, which requires the downloading of huge amounts of data.

And that's exactly why there's such an uproar right now over the "piracy" of intellectual property on the Web. Unless under some kind of digital lock and key, the files that are used to transmit a song, a movie, or a book can be endlessly copied for free. Originators of these "ideas" who expect to be paid for their work are finding that the Web doesn't yet have a suitable model for just how this can be done.

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Horror author Stephen King has begun selling installments of his new novel "The Plant" via the Internet. He asks readers to voluntarily send him $1 per installment. His honor system does have a sting in its tail, though: If 75 percent of readers don't fork over their dollar, he'll simply not publish the rest of the story. "If you don't pay me, I will put my guitar over my shoulder and head on down the road," he says, conjuring up the image of a balladeer who plays only for pay.

But what about music, which isn't sold in installments? Napster.com has become a free online swap shop for music of all kinds, including popular copyrighted material by artists on major record labels. The Recording Industry Association of America is suing Napster, claiming the copying it facilitates is illegal. Now the presiding judge has put a restraining order on Napster which essentially shuts it down until the case is decided.

Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Association of America is suing the operator of 2600.com, which links to a program called DeCSS (Decode Content Scrambling System) that can decrypt DVDs, the popular in-home movie-viewing discs, allowing them to be copied for free. The MPAA is also suing scour.com, a site that directs people to free copies of movies online.

It's only fair that authors of original works reap a return from their efforts. These court cases are early treks into unknown legal territory, exploring how authors' rights can be protected on the Internet, a medium based on the concept of the free sharing of ideas. How they are decided will shape what is on the Web, and how we access it, for a long time to come.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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