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Careful What You Copy

The rise of digital technology has made sharing something you see on the web, a daily event for many people.  But there’s a gray area when it comes to what is legal to copy and share, and what’s not.

There is an old concept in American society; people own the works of arts and letters they create. Copyright law protects their intellectual property. And if others want to use it they must get permission or pay for the privilege.  But the digital is raising new questions.
“So for instance, in the world of paper and film, it used to be that copying a work was a discrete deliberate act. But today, every single use of digital material involves copying, at a minimum through temporary files in our computers and our devices," says Saul Halfon, Associate Professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech. He is one of the organizers of a conference on intellectual property in the digital age.  He says most people are not aware they could be sued for using other people’s work without permission. “You know they’re streaming, they’re sharing, they’re sending things back and forth, they’re grabbing things from here and there, they’re posting stuff on their Facebook in a kind of constant movement.”   

But here’s something you may not have realized. “All that stuff is copyrighted.  All of it.”

Copyright protection laws apply to intellectual property, even in digital form.  But the technology has made it easier than ever to cheat, so that many people aren’t even aware they’re breaking the law.

“Cheating now doesn’t take any thought. In fact, it’s very hard not to cheat. It used to be that libraries and media professionals really had to be very aware because they were the creators.  But now it feels like we all have to be aware of the laws because we’re all faced with these of questions of rights and ownership in our daily practices.’

Current law protects intellectual property for its creator’s lifetime plus 70 years. And while digital technology has made is easier to copy things without permission, it has also made it easier to find the cheaters.  

The U.S. copyright office is looking closely at how the law may need to change to accommodate the culture of sharing that may be infringing on the rights of producers.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.