Information in the Digital Age: Is Information Really Free?

By Peter Olsen

“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

In the United States, the freedom of speech and the press is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. This would likewise imply the right to seek, provide, and receive information. The freedom of information is essential to our democracy. It gives Americans the opportunity to come up with new ideas and creative solutions to problems. Moreover, freedom of information serves the educational process by helping to make available knowledge and concepts required for the development of the mind and enhancement of learning. With availability, however, one must exercise responsibility. Freedom requires self-discipline, a practice that precludes cheating or stealing. By applying critical judgment, an ordinary citizen can decide how to legally obtain and use information from a convenient source. The purpose of copyright law is to maintain a balance between freedom to access information and the right of an author or artist to safeguard his or her intellectual property.

The term “intellectual property” refers to intangible forms of property such as creative works. This covers such diverse areas as books, poems, music, software, photographs, videos, blog entries, and Web pages. Copyright law sets the standards for how, when, and to what extent the owners or creators have the authority to protect and profit from their ideas and works. Intellectual property industries that produce the above listed materials depend on the sales that they make from their ideas. However, if these works are routinely copied, stolen, or distributed freely over the Internet, then it becomes less likely that they will find it profitable enough to stay in business. Unfortunately, many people are ignorant about what the copyright law means or encompasses, especially in regard to new technology. In order for people to responsibly exercise a right, they must first understand how to properly use it. Once adequately informed about copyright law, people will hopefully do the right thing. In this paper I will focus on the importance of educating the public about copyright law, specifically in regard to three main areas: printed, audio/visual, and news media.

Historically, copyright law was established to encourage and protect creative production, not to hinder it. According to the National Research Council, “courts and commentators have repeatedly emphasized the fundamentally utilitarian nature of copyright, noting that the Constitution provides for intellectual property protection with the pragmatic goal of promoting the public interest in access to knowledge and innovation.” (National Research Council Staff) As explained by a group of Harvard University researchers, American copyright law has protected architectural, cartographic, choreographic, dramatic, graphic, literary, musical, pantomimic, pictorial, and sculptural creations ever since the founding of the United States. The original law covered these works for fourteen years with the privilege of renewal for another fourteen years. Since 2005, U.S. copyright protection has been automatically granted to every creative work in any form, including digital works, for a period of the life of the author plus 70 years or up to 120 years from the date the work is first created. (Palfrey) After a copyright lapses and is not renewed, the work enters the public domain and becomes free of all copyright restrictions.

Although copyright protects a wide variety of artistic creations, books are the first items that usually come to mind when one thinks of copyright. The vast volumes stored within libraries and freely accessible to the public are evidence of the fact that books have been the main holders of copyright over the years. But since the rapid advance of online publications such as Web sites, blogs, and e-books, the lines are often blurred between printed and digital materials. In fact, some publications are now available in both formats. Technological progress, along with the ease of access and ability to interact with information, has led to much confusion over how the information can be legally used. Andrew Yeaman, Chairman of the Committee on Professional Ethics Association for Educational Communications and Technology, suggests, “When you notice that people are saying some aspect of educational communications and technology ‘isn’t right’ or ‘isn’t fair’ or ‘doesn’t make complete sense’ … or ‘requires a person with authority to take charge’ or ‘needs a few ground rules to be laid down’ … or anything else along these lines…” it’s apparent that a problem exists which needs to be addressed. (Yeaman) A starting point would be for instructors to provide specific guidelines for students in how to use diverse informational resources responsibly as well as effectively.

While the copyright ramifications of new book technology are confusing, the audio/visual field has been a highly visible point of contention for copyright infringement. Movies, TV shows, music, and software are subject to illegal copying and distribution which is often accomplished using “peer-to-peer” programs. But downloading entertainment products does not need to be done illegally. According to a Motion Picture Association of America copyright site, “Downloading and streaming  films and TV shows, renting them on-line, or buying a DVD with a bonus digital copy are all options available to consumers now, and even more progress is being made to give consumers the flexibility the modern marketplace demands. At the same time copyright plays an important role in ensuring a broad array of choices for consumers and in providing the proper incentives for long-term investment in creativity and innovation.” (“Digital Hollywood”) People need to understand that they cannot take from the Internet “for free” that which they would otherwise need to purchase. They should be aware of “too good to be true” offers for free downloads from unfamiliar sites, which typically indicate pirated products.

The media regularly reports about the importance of copyright on audio/visual content. But Gavin O’Reilly, President of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, contends that “somehow when it comes to the written word from us news publishers, the inherent logic of copyright gets sidelined.” He goes on to explain how in-depth news content is expensive to produce, and “those who research, write and shape the news have a not unreasonable expectation of just reward.” (Burrell) In a commencement address, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger affirmed, “there is no more important task than creating a global society in which ideas matter, knowledge can be pursued freely, dissent can be heard, and objective news can be gathered and published. Americans can neither take those rights for granted nor be satisfied to enjoy them while they are denied to others.” (Bollinger) Copyright law enables news companies to benefit financially while serving the general public’s desire for information. Society’s interpretation of the words “free-for-all” needs to change from an environment where everything is free for the taking, to one in which the emphasis is on the freedom to gather and share information, but with due respect for the content creator.

Intellectual property industries are central to the stability of the American economy. Personal jobs and family income depend on sales from products derived from innovative ideas. In his speech at Columbia University, Bollinger clarifies the concern by stating, “we must realize that we have a collective need for the free flow of information and ideas essential for dynamic economic markets to function efficiently, for governments to tackle societal challenges effectively, and for scholars to achieve research advances.” (Bollinger) The Internet and computers have made it easy to share intellectual property. The challenge is to do so without crossing the copyright line. U.S. copyright law gives creators a generous time period in which they have the exclusive right to benefit from their labors, while also ensuring that all intellectual property eventually becomes widely disseminated. Individual creators have the prerogative to allow for free access to their products by making them openly available. As a result, enough free information sources are available so no one needs to copy or steal intellectual property that legally belongs to someone.

According to an essay published by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition entitled “Knowledge as a Public Good” (Suber), it is clear that copyright law upholds knowledge as a public good. However, the expressions of that knowledge in the form of print and digital materials are the private property of the creator or owner, and he or she has the option of granting or denying permission for open access. Nevertheless, with so many choices in a dynamic information-based society, it can be confusing to distinguish between what is private property and what is public domain. Since enforcement of copyright law is difficult and government intervention is ill-advised, the logical solution is through education. Copyright literacy could be a part of the required curriculum in English classes, with the focus on pre-teens and teens who are avid users of multimedia technology. Much of today’s copyright abuse is simply due to misunderstanding. Most people would do the right thing if they understood the law. Information can be free… as long as it is obtained responsibly.

Works Cited:

Bollinger, Lee C. “A Free Press for a Global Society.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 56.25 (Feb 21, 2010). Academic OneFile.

Burrell, Ian. “Gavin O’Reilly Calls for Google to Respect Copyright.” The Independent [London] 4 Dec 2009.

“Digital Hollywood.” Motion Picture Association of America, Inc., 2008.

National Research Council Staff. “Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property in the Information Age.” National Academies Press, 2000: 97. ebrary.

Palfrey, John, Urs Gasser, Miriam Simun, and Rosalie Fay Barnes. “Youth, Creativity, and Copyright in the Digital Age.” International Journal of Learning and Media. Spring 2009: 79. MIT Press Journals.

Suber, Peter. “Knowledge as a Public Good.” SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #139. November 2, 2009.

Yeaman, Andrew R. J. “On the Responsible Use of Communication Media for Learning.” TechTrends, Nov/Dec 2009: 20. EBSCOHost Professional Development Collection.

Peter is a 20-year-old homeschool graduate attending Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, Arizona.

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