When it comes to the relationship between copyright and the Internet, two things are true: Copyright changed the Internet and the Internet changed copyright.
One of the big ways that the Internet has changed copyright is through the types of infringement that are commonplace. Infringements that almost never happened at all 20 years ago are commonplace today, just like some other infringements that were regular occurrences before the Web are almost unheard of now.
However, when we think of pre-Internet infringements, we often remember them poorly. While file sharing has made piracy easier and more common, piracy is also nothing new. It was prominent before the Web and actually goes as far back as player pianos.
So what types of infringement were truly made common by the Web? There are countless ones out there as the Web has provided a radical shift to copyright industries in many ways, but there are some that definitely stand out.
To be clear, this isn’t to say that these infringements never took place before the Internet, just that they were extremely rare or not widely seen as copyright issues. However, in each case, though they might have existed before the Web in some small way, the Interneet made them a much bigger issue and one that’s at the forefront of many people’s minds.
On that note, here are just five types of infringement that were brought to the forefront solely by the Internet..
1. Plagiarizing Marketing Copy
While people almost certainly plagiarized marketing copy before the Internet, it took the Web to make it a major copyright issue for many businesses.
The Internet had two impacts on this issue. First, it made it so that anyone, even a single individual in their spare time, could start up a business online. Second, it made it so that businesses needed a lot more marketing material to fill their sites, blogs and social media profiles.
This created an explosion of businesses all with a voracious appetite for content and at least some with questionable ethics. Combine that with search engine optimization (SEO), which calls for unique content, you have an atmosphere of companies eager to protect their work.
So while such infringements took place 20 years ago, the Internet made them a much bigger problem, increasing not only the number of times it took place but giving businesses new motivation to fight back rather than simply ignore the issue.
2. Plagiarizing Personal Literature
If you’ve read my story, you know that I got interested in plagiarism almost 13 years ago due to people plagiarizing my poetry. However, my problem wouldn’t have even been possible just a few years before then.
Prior to the Web, personal literature didn’t have much of an avenue for publication other than literary magazines. However, with the rise of personal sites, blogs, Tumblr’s, etc, anyone can publisher their poetry, short stories, essays and other works to a worldwide audience.
However, that also means that the content can be infringed by a worldwide audience, including being posted and plagiarized on other personal sites and even sold commercially (in particular through online services like Lulu). The Web also makes it easier to find such infringements and stop them.
This infringement is a small price to pay for the chance to reach a global audience, but it’s still worth noting that poetry kept in a desk drawer is not often infringed upon.
3. Newspaper Infringement
Newspaper reporters would semi-routinely copy and paste from one another in ways that were both unethical and likely unlawful. However, those matters were treated as ethical issues, not legal ones, as papers had little to gain suing each other every time a reporter went rogue.
However, with the Internet, news infringement has taken a completely different turn. Where the movie studios and the record labels were used to dealing with piracy before the Web, news publishers were not.
The Internet had two impacts. First, widespread personal publication made it so that almost anyone could be a large-scale infringer, rather than just another publication, and second it gave an immediacy to the medium that meant infringing copies were just as valuable and timely as the originals.
4. Mashup Copyright Issues
While many mashup videos are not infringements, others, such as lip synching videos, do raise serious copyright questions. However, those questions didn’t even have to be asked until the Internet came on the scene.
Previously, if a group of friends made a video of themselves singing or playing along to a popular song, there wasn’t much distribution of it. TV stations wouldn’t play it and, without a YouTube or something to the like, it never went much beyond a small group of friends or, at most, a demo reel.
However, with the international distribution that’s possible online, mashup content is becoming a much bigger copyright issue. Couple that with the decreasing cost and increasing usability of editing software and you have a recipe mashed copyright issues.
5. Photography Infringement
To be clear, photographers had their works infringed before the Internet with some regularity. However, many of those issues were as much contract issues as copyright ones.
Simply put, before the Web, finding a print-ready image to infringe upon was difficult enough. It was generally easier to work with a photo service and pay the fee. That’s how most magazines, newspapers and other publications filled their pages, using a combination of staff/freelance photographers and photo libraries.
The Internet changed the game drastically. Not only were individuals and small companies misusing photographs, often treating Google Image Search as a stock photo library, but companies are getting into it as well, with many news organizations pulling photos off of Twitter with an attitude that it’s faster to seek forgiveness than ask permission.
The Internet was a perfect storm for photographers. The Web itself made it easier to find photos and created countless “publishers” who would need them, lower resolution of the Web made photo size less important and the digital format made them much easier to copy and reuse.
Couple that with services like Pinterest and it’s easy to see why so many photographers are upset about the changes in their industry.
Clearly, the Internet has drastically changed the types of infringement that we see. Just as kids no longer do kids wait to record their favorite song on the radio or swap mix tapes in school, the days of newspaper articles not being a copyright issue are also done.
Technology changes everything, including copyright, and it’s continuing to do so. As the Web evolves, we’re going to see more and more types of infringement that we didn’t see before and watch as others die off.
The law is having an impact on the Web as well and the law itself is slowly changing too. Though the gears of legislation turn more slowly, in time we’ll be able to see the impact the Web has had on the law itself.
In the meantime, it’s interesting to look at how the Web has changed human behavior and, along with it, the copyright issues creators face.