PKThinks Tackles Copyright Issues in a Digital Age

Ownership becomes a tricky matter, as we trade CDs for MP3s. PKThinks' first white paper addresses "Copies, Rights & Copyrights."

PKThinks, the think tank of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, has released the first of what's to be a series of white papers on "cutting-edge legal issues."

As more of what we own becomes intangible, and app downloads, online music purchases and streaming video rentals become ever-greater parts of our lives, "Copies, Rights & Copyrights" is a compelling read.

Here are seven takeaways from the report.

1. Macy's Helped Put in Place the "First Sale" Doctrine

In 1904, publishing house Bobbs-Merrill released a book called The Castaway and on its inside cover wrote that the book couldn't be sold for less than $1. Macy's decided to sell the book for 89 cents. Bobbs-Merrill sued and a court decided that the publisher gave up its rights to control how that physical book is sold, once it sold it.

"It's temptingly easy to draw a line straight from that case to the relevant section of our copyright laws today," wrote report author, and PK's Vice President for Legal Affairs Sherwin Siy.

"First sale balances the tension between the rights of property owners and the rights of authors," Siy added.

2. Enter the End-User License Agreement (EULA)

Often when we download a computer program, we're made to sign a EULA that includes the phrasing, or some variant: "This software is licensed to you, not sold."

"That sentence is an attempt to assert that the consumer who pays for a specific copy of that computer program isn't its 'owner,'" wrote Siy. "This would mean that first sale doesn't apply, and the user/owner has no right to distribute the program after purchase."

3. Is It Possible to Distribute Digital Content Without Reproducing It?

If I buy a record and tire of it, I can sell it to someone. But if I buy an MP3, can I—even if I delete the file on my end—sell it to someone? No, because to share/sell it is to make a copy, and copies infringe copyright.

"When CDs are as obsolete as eight tracks, and if there's no physical media on the market, then there will never be sales of used media," wrote Siy. "No more used book stores. No more second-hand music shots. ... In light of this, copyright holders have every incentive to ensure that the law interprets any digital transfer as a reproduction and not a distribution."

An exception, however, is allowed for computer programs, which need to make copies to a computer's RAM.

4. Digital Restrictions Are Eroding Control of the Media We Buy

Digital rights management (DRM) made headlines early this year for, somewhat inadvertently, making it illegal to unlock a smartphone you own and that is no longer under contract with an operator.

DRM is also the reason it's illegal to rip a DVD one owns onto one's computer.

"It's like being sued by your car manufacturer for picking the lock to your car," wrote Siy.