The copyright law protects original works. Examples of such works are paintings, books, articles, speeches, study materials, songs, and software. Databases may also be protected by copyrights.
For a work to be defensible, it needs to be tangible. A speech, for instance, that is not recorded or otherwise documented cannot be copyrighted. The work must also contain an expression of an idea, since an idea in itself is not defensible under the law. For instance, formulas cannot be protected by the law (although they may be defensible under the patent laws). Another example is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: The idea itself (the plot)—a love story between a boy and a girl from incompatible families which has a tragic ending—cannot be copyrighted (indeed, this idea has been often imitated as, for instance, in West Side Story). The particular words chosen by the writers of West Side Story to express the plot are protected however, and cannot be used without authorization.
The rights attached to a copyrighted work are the exclusive authority to duplicate, distribute, and perform the work. It is always important to examine whether the added value of the work cannot be protected by other means, since the law provides only limited protection to the information-content included in the work.
The measure of protection provided by copyrights depends on the nature of the work. Generally, the protection of a work is valid until the 75th anniversary of its publication or the centennial of its creation, whichever is the earlier. Copyrights originating from work performed by an employee or subcontractor belong to the company if the work was performed within the employee's duties in the company or within a contracting agreement which defines it as work that had been contracted for.
Any work on which the creator's name appears is protected by the copyright law, even if it does not bear the copyright symbol. However, many add the copyright symbol along with the year of creation (copyright John Doe © 2000). In principle, many companies add this symbol on many documents that leave the company.
Issues in Digital Media
The Internet created new issues that did not exist before, such as the broadcasting of works over the Internet and various peer-to-peer services. In 1998, a law was passed that purports to update the copyright law for the 21st century, namely, The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The main purpose of the act is to clarify the relevance of copyright laws to the technological advancements of the past decades. The act forbids the development and offer of any technology that enables access to copyrighted work. In addition, the act prohibits any manufacture, import, development, or marketing in connection with the offer of a product, service, or technology, which is essentially a means of breaching copyrights.
The act restricts the liability of Internet providers for violations committed by their customers, as long as the providers did not intentionally transmit information in violation of copyrights. If a provider becomes aware of a violation, he or she must stop it. The act imposes on Internet broadcast providers (such as Web-based television and radio stations) the same obligations with respect to the payment of royalties as are imposed on physical broadcasting stations.
Legal copyright suits have recently come into the spotlight that were filed against some Internet sites which enable the transfer of data files in a manner breaching their creators' copyrights (such as the Napster site, which allowed users to exchange music files). The main argument is that these sites enable the exchange of files, even if it is not the sites themselves which perform the actual copying. This argument is being examined from the year 2000 in the United States, and could have far-reaching implications on sites that rely on the sharing of information among users. One of the main arguments against Napster is that the site was used mainly to copy works which are protected by copyrights. The court ruled in 2001 that Napster must prevent the exchange of files of works appearing in lists provided by the holders of the copyrights to such works. Other sites, which do not maintain indexes of the files transmitted by their users, are still in constant litigation with copyright holders, claiming they are not liable for illegal use of their networks.
In practice, almost every Web site that engages in mediation, whether free of charge or for a fee, may be confronted with this issue. eBay, for instance, disclaims any liability for the sale of products in breach of their attendant copyrights, and takes many measures to minimize the number of cases in which counterfeit or copied products are sold in breach of copyrights. Clearly, sites whose core activity relies on the digital transfer of information among their users bear a higher risk of legal exposure if they do not make adequate preparations to address this matter, either by various means of control or by attempting to disclaim their liability from the outset (which attempts are usually ineffective). eBay, for instance, employs many workers in search of problematic products which could be sold through the site (such as human organs) and in search of stolen products or products which breach copyrights.
Case law in Europe has recently been stricter than in the United States. A French court, for example, has ruled that Yahoo must screen the material offered for sale via its auction service and is responsible for preventing the sale of Nazi propaganda through its site.