Laws in general aren't known for their clarity, hence the need for lawyers to rack up billable hours searching for loopholes to exploit or to try to bend them to fit the case at hand. Copyright laws, while less tangled than the infamous "Patent Thicket
, " are no straightforward walk in the park, either.
Eric Hellman tackles the ambiguous nature of copyright infringement, especially as it pertains to the "region-free" aspects of the internet, in a post amusingly titled, "Heisenberg's Uncertain Copyright."
(via The Digital Reader
Hellman turns his attention to F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," and using his skills in the area of "Quantum Copyright" (a term he threw into his LinkedIn profile for a bit of fun), determines that the question of whether or not copyright infringement has occurred might
depend on where
the copying occurred, something that is even harder to define when the copying takes place via the internet.
It turns out that where a copy is made has consequences. Consider Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby...
The Great Gatsby already belongs to every Australian, in the sense that Australians have the right to read and copy it for free without anybody's permission. In the US, it belongs to the CBS Corporation, and if you want to read it on Kindle, it'll cost you $7.80.
If you copy Gatsby in Australia, no problem, it's cool, because Gatsby has entered the public domain. There's an excellent version available from Project Gutenberg Australia. If you do it in the US without permission from the CBS, it constitutes copyright infringement and is punishable with jail time and statutory damages up to $150,000 per incidence of infringement. So it really matters where the copying occurs.
While Hellman exaggerates the repercussions of making a hypothetical copy (the highest statutory claims would apply only to willful infringement [which this could
be, especially when infringing in order to prove a hypothesis] and the jail time only applies to criminal infringement -- which this almost certainly would not be), the fact remains that one deterrent of infringement is the underlying threat of legal action (whether civil or criminal). No doubt F. Scott Fitzgerald's estate is in no hurry to give up the American rights (and the attendant enforcement of those rights), seeing as "The Great Gatsby" earned its author all of $8,400 during his lifetime
-- but generates $500,000 per year for his daughter. This secondhand largesse enjoyed by many heirs is one of the motivators behind the ever-extending copyright lengths here in this country.
Hellman posits this not-so-hypothetical situation:
Suppose you have a book sitting on a computer in Australia. The computer breaks the book into thousands of UDP packets and sends them into the Internet. Copying can't have occurred yet, because the packets aren't fixed in any form. For copyright purposes,
"Copies" are material objects, other than phonorecords, in which a work is fixed by any method now known or later developed, and from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. The term "copies" includes the material object, other than a phonorecord, in which the work is first fixed. http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html
Now suppose the packets are reassembled on my hard drive in New Jersey. A copy of "The Great Gatsby" has materialized. Has a copyright been infringed? If I was in Australia and the source of the packets was in the US, would the answer be different?
In this case, the copying process
originates in a country where no copyright protection covers Fitzgerald's book. Its "assembly" in the US suddenly makes it an infringing copy. Does this make sense? More importantly, does it even matter? According to rights holders, the copy would still be infringing, simply because it was copied, at least according to the section of copyright law cited by Hellman, which states that only
the owner of the copyright has the "exclusive right... to reproduce the copyrighted work."
But even that doesn't entirely clear up the situation. If no rights holder can claim this "exclusive right to reproduce" in Australia, then it would seem that "shipping" copies from Australia would be a legal act, right up until the copy "hits" the US border. Exploring this hypothetical situation further, Hellman comes up with a list of "quantum copyright" possibilities.
So we have 8 different quantum copyright location scenarios; 6 have uncertainty as to the fact of infringement:
1. Person copying, copy source, and copy destination all in US. (US law controls!)
2. Person copying, copy source, and copy destination all in Australia. (Australia law controls!)
3. Person copying and copy source in US, copy destination in Australia.
4. Person copying and copy source in Australia, copy destination in US.
5. Person copying and copy destination in US, copy source in Australia.
6. Person copying and copy destination in Australia, copy source in US.
7. Person copying in US, copy source and copy destination in Australia.
8. Person copying in Australia, copy source and copy destination in US.
So, to sum it all up, magic 8-ball style: "Answer unclear. Ask again later." More narrowly, however, the exclusive rights granted to copyright holders would find most of these situations infringing. Any copy originating in the US would violate the reproduction right as Hellman points out. Any action initiating in the US would very likely violate the holder's distribution rights. For all intents and purposes, the hypothetical copier is only 100% in the clear in instance #2, where all copying starts and stops in Australia where Fitzgerald's book is public domain. In cases where the copy is "sent" to the US from Australia, it could very well fall under the the "right to reproduce," as US consumers would be limited to "authorized" copies from the rights holders. If some Australian set up a site offering downloads of public domain books that were still under copyright in the US, the rights to reproduce and distribute would likely be pointed out as the reason any US users availing themselves of this service are actually guilty of copyright infringement. If it's under copyright in the US, then the copyright owner's rights must be respected... at $7.80 a copy.
Certainly, copyright-centered entities like the MPAA would prefer to simply have our copyright laws exported
to other countries with less stringent laws, especially any sections that extend the length of copyright protection and weaken fair use/fair dealing exceptions. Getting other nations to sync up with our copyright lengths would certainly eliminate these hypothetical discussions, along with many items in the public domain. Many aspects of current copyright laws were written years ago, long before the internet made "country of origin" a meaningless term and reproductions as simple as a right-click on a mouse. What it usually boils down to, after all the discussion, is this:
You could also be a cynic and say the only thing that matters is where the judge is sitting.
Much like fair use is often determined by a courtroom appearance, the "quantum" aspects of copyright are largely theoretical -- right up to the point that someone finds themselves at the other end of an infringement lawsuit.