For a long time, the world has grappled with the problem of protecting intellectual property because of its intangibility (Frankel & Gervais, 2014). Comparatively, it is relatively easier to protect tangible properties, such as houses, land, or cars because all one needs to do is protect it using a fence, or install a security system, to ward off intruders and trespassers. Moreover, in cases that involve (physical) property law infringements, it is easy for a court of law to establish whether the infringement has occurred because it would ordinarily be visible.
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However, the same is not true for intangible assets because it is difficult to establish infringements, as they are not always visible. Nonetheless, this difficulty does not negate the value of intellectual property as a valuable asset because, as the World Economic Forum (2014) observes, it is as valuable as physical assets, if not more.
Owing to the problem of protecting intellectual property, different jurisdictions have formulated intellectual property laws to protect content developers from infringements, or “theft,” by unscrupulous people. Relative to this fact, the World Economic Forum (2014) says intellectual property law should protect the creators of intellectual property from infringements by people who may want to pass off other people’s work as theirs. However, the process of enforcing such laws is tricky because of the difficulty associated with determining infringements of ideas or knowledge.
The onset of the digital age has made the determination of intellectual property infringements even harder to determine because of changes in how people create, consume, and share information. Relative to this assertion, the CBO (2004) says, “Rapid technological progress in information technology poses new issues of copyright law. Today, a digital file can be copied and instantaneously distributed worldwide through the Internet, thus potentially depriving the copyright holder of revenue from licensed sales” (p. 3).
This paper explores how the onset of the digital era has exacerbated the problem of copyright infringements in modern societies. In this paper, we approach the issue from the view that this problem is unabated because content owners and content users do not understand their responsibility concerning the production, reproduction, and sharing of copyrighted material on digital platforms. Therefore, most of the arguments presented in this research paper highlight the roles that all parties have to play in tackling this problem because, for a long time, researchers have failed to approach this issue from a holistic perspective.
The findings of this research paper would help us understand the norms, rules, and values that surround the creation and sharing of information in the digital age. The same findings would also help us to understand how these norms, rules, and values are changing in today’s fast-paced world. Nonetheless, before delving into the details surrounding this view, it is important to understand the history and background of the research topic.
History and Background
In the past, many countries ignored copyright infringement issues because they failed to understand how intellectual property is a legally protected property in the first place (Frankel & Gervais, 2014). It was not until the 19th century that many people started to hear the word “intellectual property” and understand its meaning (CBO, 2004). Even then, its popularity was minimal (Spinello, 2009).
However, the onset of the 20th century marked the increased popularity of the concept as it became commonplace in different parts of the world. During this time, people started understanding that new intellectual discoveries constituted “property.” The French Law of 1971 encompassed this fact by stating that “All new discoveries are the property of the author; to assure the inventor the property and temporary enjoyment of his discovery, there shall be delivered to him a patent for five, ten or 15 years” (Spinello, 2009, p. 36). It was not until the 21st century, that many countries introduced intellectual property laws to encourage innovation and not to protect what was already innovated (CBO, 2004).
Therefore, historically, different governments enforced intellectual property law when they thought it would encourage innovation. This is why many governments stipulated a time and scope for the enforcement of such laws. However, over the years, intellectual property laws have evolved to give content developers an avenue to make money, or make a living, from their innovation (Spinello, 2009). In this regard, many countries have made progress protecting intellectual property, with some of the most advanced democracies protecting such property with zeal. However, the onset of the digital age has threatened to negate such progress.
Based on the above concerns, owners of intellectual property are contesting the right of digital media users to share and make personal copies of copyrighted digital content because digital platforms have fundamentally changed how people share and develop content (Frankel & Gervais, 2014). This issue affects different facets of the society, and mostly those who are in the creative industry.
For example, musicians, writers, actors, television network companies, graphic designers, and music producers are some content developers who have fallen victim to this issue. Many legal cases have emerged from the infringement of copyrighted materials involving the above group of content developers. Some of the most notable ones include the case by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) vs. Napster, the case of Playboy Enterprises vs. Frena, and the case of Sega Enterprises Ltd. vs. MAPHIA (University of Texas, 2015).
In all these cases, the content developers sued a different party for using their copyrighted material for distribution via digital media platforms. For example, in Sega Enterprises Ltd. vs. MAPHIA, the former sued the latter for copying a game to its BBS and making it available for its users to download (University of Texas, 2015). The court found that the accused was guilty of copyright infringement, especially after it found out that MAPHIA was charging its users for downloading the copyrighted content (University of Texas, 2015).
The above cases show that plagiarism and piracy are some vices that have sprouted from the infringement of copyrighted law. Some content developers have resorted to change with the times by developing digital media platforms where they can develop a sustainable revenue model where digital media users get copyrighted material legally (CBO, 2004). For example, if we examine the music industry alone, we find that many content developers have signed up to mainstream digital media outlets, such as iTunes and Soundcloud, where digital media users pay for the content they download online.
The television and movie industries have also followed the same model with the advent of digital media streaming sites, such as Netflix and Amazon. The trend is ongoing, but most content developers have not made significant gains with such efforts because copyright law infringements are still happening. As such, this paper emphasizes the importance of all parties understanding their responsibility in tackling this problem. The responsibilities of key players appear below.
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Responsibility of Content Developers
In today’s fast-paced digital age, content developers need to be concerned with establishing and protecting the ownership of their digital content. This strategy would reduce the level of vulnerability of their digital content to infringements. Some of the possible strategies that content developers could use to protect their digital contents include
Restrict Access to Digital Content
Restricting access to digital content is among the most basic steps content developers could use to minimize their vulnerability to copyright infringements because the strategy involves simple steps as enabling username and passwords features to their digital contents. In an academic setup, the same strategy could simply involve circulating content among a closed group of users, such as classroom participants (University of Texas, 2015).
Watermarking is an important strategy for content developers to consider when protecting intellectual property. However, it is more effective in protecting digital content distributed virtually (Frankel & Gervais, 2014). Nonetheless, this strategy involves giving personal details of the content owner to register ownership information on digital platforms. Photoshop offers this feature by allowing content developers to develop a “creator identification tag” on their digital content.
When digital content developers use this strategy, their online content often has a digital marker that lets users know they are using watermarked content. However, content developers need to register with different apps, before they can watermark their content. Therefore, companies that offer such services often have a database of artists, designers, photographers and other types of content developers in their system.
Include Copyright Notice and Registration
Including a copyright notice on the accessible digital content is a simple way of informing users, or consumers of digital content, that they are using copyrighted content (University of Texas, 2015). The failure to do so would make it difficult for users to understand their mistake if they are using the content wrongfully. Claims of innocent infringement often happen in this manner because some content owners do not declare that they are availing copyrighted content. In the United States, content owners and developers are often required to register their work with the U.S copyright office (University of Texas, 2015).
If an infringement occurs, it is easy for courts to litigate registered contents. Owners of such content also receive higher reparations compared to content developers who did not register their material at all (CBO, 2004). Registration for large media projects is paramount because it may save content developers a lot of money that they would have lost if they did not register their content. Nonetheless, when doing so, it is important to place the year and symbol of registration at the bottom of each page copyrighted. Although copyright symbols are not mandatory in every instance, many experts encourage content developers to use them because they are usually the first line of defense in copyright infringement cases (Frankel & Gervais, 2014).
Responsibility of Content Users
According to Malcolm (2013), if somebody wants to use copyrighted material, they have a responsibility to contact the content owner, or the agency that manages such content, and request for permission to use the content. Usually, when content owners grant such permissions, they often dictate the terms of usage. For example, the content owners may not require the user to pay for the use of the copyrighted material, but would require the user to acknowledge the content owner when distributing, or sharing the work.
Some content owners could also require payment for their copyrighted work, and only allow for limited reproduction. Therefore, the terms of engagement are usually relative and depend on the nature of the relationship between the content developer and the user. Relative to the above assertion, the University of Texas (2015) says,
“The fact that technology makes copying and distributing works easy does not make it a right. Unless stated otherwise, those rights belong to the creator. And although in some instances the public interest outweighs the creator’s rights, as in fair use, the current criteria and tests that define the educational use of copyrighted material as “fair” are difficult to apply to a Multimedia product” (p. 4).
“Fair use” guidelines are supposed to help content developers and media users have an amicable agreement on how to use media content. For example, they may provide guidelines regarding the limits of how much work users could gain access (Malcolm, 2013). When users get permission to use digital content under the “fair use” policy, they are also often required to state so. At an institutional level, different organizations have unique policies and regulations surrounding the use of copyrighted materials (University of Texas, 2015). However, such laws and policies are products of the existing state, or federal laws, surrounding the protection of copyrighted material.
What is the Role of Government?
The responsibility of creating an environment where content owners and content users can interact fairly rests with the government. However, to fulfill their role, they need to have gained access to comprehensive and reliable ownership data and interoperable communication standards that different users and owners use. Generally, experts say that the government’s role in promoting the legal use of copyrighted content rests in proper enforcement of existing laws (World Economic Forum, 2014).
However, some of them have a differing view by saying the role of government, in the context of this focus of discussion, could spread to fostering collaboration among the main stakeholders in the sector (Spinello, 2009). It may do so in different ways. For example, it could remove obstacles that inhibit effective collaboration or introduce incentives to facilitate the same. Another area where governments could help in fostering the legal use of digital content is in helping stakeholders to gain a better access to standardized rights ownership information. Already, interested groups are piling pressure on governments to expedite the process of copyrighting digital content, as one avenue of eliminating the legal inefficiencies of digital media registration (World Economic Forum, 2014).
Others are piling more pressure to increase the use of the system by content owners and to increase the comprehensiveness of the system in achieving the same goal (Spinello, 2009). With respect to creating synergies in the registration and development of digital content, many observers have voiced the need for having an online registration platform to speed up the process of registering, or copyrighting, digital content.
However, many people hold the view that affected industries should spearhead such efforts and not necessarily the government (Frankel & Gervais, 2014). This proposal could mean the setting up of a digital copyright hub that engages the views of different industry players. Such discussions are ongoing in the United Kingdom (World Economic Forum, 2014). Nonetheless, Malcolm (2013) points out that there needs to be an international platform where stakeholders discuss such issues. The discussions may occur at different levels, but, more importantly, they need to occur at an intergovernmental level to streamline the standards for the enforcement of copyright laws around the world.
Criticisms of Intellectual Property Law
This paper has emphasized the need for different stakeholders to respect the importance of copyright laws. It has also presented this discussion from the perspective of respecting everyone’s responsibility in the enforcement of copyright laws because this is the best way of ensuring everyone takes responsibility for the rampant copyright law infringements in today’s digital world. While some people may view such an approach as a positive development to the adoption of digital media, others view it as a misguided contradiction of law (Stallman, 2010).
People who hold such views often oppose the entire concept of intellectual property law because they believe it is vague and abstract (CBO, 2004). Proponents of the same view also believe the adoption of simple semantics, such as “property” and “law” is an affront on public interest (CBO, 2004). Stallman (2010) adds to this view by saying it is an abuse of existing legislation.
These critics base their arguments on the fact that existing intellectual property laws were not designed to address some of the copyright infringement challenges we see in the digital age. This is why they say the enforcement of intellectual property laws in the digital era is a misguided stretch in the application of related intellectual property laws. Nonetheless, based on the insights found in this paper, it is plausible to comprehend how critics may think this way. However, what they fail to understand is that the digital era has only introduced new platforms to develop and share digital content, but it has not eroded the basic principles of intellectual property law. Therefore, digital media is only a platform for sharing information and not an exemption to the application of the basic principles of intellectual property law.
This paper has demonstrated that the digital media age has increased the complexity of enforcing copyright laws. When creating, or distributing, copyrighted media content, it is important to have an understanding of how to respect intellectual property laws. More importantly, it is crucial to seek permission before using copyrighted material. Content developers should also take proactive measures to copyright their digital content because this is the only way they could protect their content from infringements.
Therefore, although the digital era has complicated the process of enforcing intellectual property laws, it does not mean that such laws are obsolete; instead, it means that all concerned parties need to adopt creative ways of enforcing the same legal provisions on digital platforms. More importantly, stakeholders should be more vigilant in enforcing intellectual property laws because digital media has increased the loopholes for the contravention of such laws.
Nonetheless, as we engage in this discussion, it is important to understand that the reason for protecting intellectual property stretches beyond the economic benefit of doing so. Content developers play a big role in the development of national cultures and shape how societies view the world, or how the world views different societies. Therefore, it is important to understand that copyright law infringements in the digital era could threaten our basic social fabric.
CBO. (2004). Copyright Issues in Digital Media. Web.
Frankel, S., & Gervais, D. (2014). The Evolution and Equilibrium of Copyright in the Digital Age. London, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Malcolm, J. (2013). Updating the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection for the Digital Age. New York. NY: Consumers International.
Spinello, R. (2009). A Defense of Intellectual Property Rights. New York, NY: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Stallman, R. (2010). Did You Say “Intellectual Property”? It’s a Seductive Mirage. Web.
University of Texas. (2015). Copyright in the Digital Age. Web.
World Economic Forum. (2014). Norms and Values in Digital Media: Rethinking Intellectual Property in the Digital Age. Web.