Copyrights and wrongs

Copyright controversies have plagued the Internet since the early days of Napster, but what is the current state of play, and can the issues ever be resolved?
Written by Ella Morton, Contributor

"As we confront the challenges of an information society and a digital age, all of the laws and traditions that have been built up over the years relating to the protection of intellectual property are being challenged. This bill attempts to build a bridge between the world as we knew it and the world of the future: a digital age."

So said Senator Kate Lundy at the Senate's second reading of the Copyright Amendment (Digital Agenda) Bill, way back in August 2000.

Almost six years on, we have seen the Kazaa trial, widespread implementation of digital rights management (DRM) technologies and associated controversies (Sony rootkit CDs, anyone?), and an extreme case where the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) got a bit sue-happy with some 12-year-old for downloading illegal music.

As is the case with technology in general, the Internet is developing faster than the copyright laws that attempt to govern it. But for every argument that online distribution only robs artists of royalties and violates copyright, there is a compelling counter-argument. The fast and furious success of English rock band the Arctic Monkeys, who recently achieved the record for the fastest-selling debut album in UK chart history, has been attributed to the fact that fans distributed their demo tracks on the Internet. New ventures such as the Australian short film site Nice Shorts allow film-makers to show off their work in a global forum.

Then there's the tricky little issues that have cropped up as more people publish thoughts and images online. For example, say you're out with a few friends one night and some dodgy-looking photos are taken of you amid alcohol-fuelled hijinks. According to the copyright laws of many countries, including Australia, the US, Canada, EU countries and Japan, those images and the copyrights are owned by whoever took the photos.

Now, say those photos then get uploaded to a picture sharing site such as Flickr or Webshots. Technically, you have no control over your own image because you do not own the copyright. And according to Australian legislation, it is perfectly acceptable for a photo of you (however compromising it may be to your image or ego) to be posted online without your knowledge or consent. A person's image is not protected by copyright.

Of course, the bigger photo sharing sites have procedures in place for reporting abuse and offensive content, but the idea that you may be powerless to prevent your trashed mug being showcased to the world is food for thought.

These are issues that seem to have no imminent resolution, so having elicited no definitive answers, I'm going to leave it to Matthew Tutaki's words from a Senate Committee meeting in 2003 for a thought-provoking final quote on online copyright.

"I would ask the question: who owns knowledge, and who owns information? I would suggest that the general public do. I would suggest that everything I have presented here, everybody can own. I would appreciate that everyone could have access as well to everything that resides in my head. I think sometimes copyright is an inhibitor to providing knowledge and information to a democratic society."

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