Time to Write Off Copyright?

The Internet has made it a cinch for people to share information, from a treasured poem to a snippet from a favorite band's new CD. But the I-Way is also terrifying authors and artists, who feel they're losing control over who pays to see or hear their work. That means society is going to have to rethink the whole idea of "copyright," according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences.

The report describes what it calls a "digital dilemma": once a single copy of a work exists, anyone with Internet access can potentially see and duplicate it--indeed, just reading a Web page involves downloading a copy. That's a different world from the one in which a person borrows a book from the library. The panel concludes that it's time to examine whether "the notion of copy is an appropriate foundation for copyright law," or should be replaced with some other method of protecting an author's incentive to create. Congress should hold off on overhauling copyright law, the report adds, so that businesses and computer scientists can keep working on technical ways to control the flow of digital information--such as licensing access to Web sites.

The academy panel--a mix of publishers, librarians, authors, and computer scientists--concludes that another group of experts needs to work out just how to redefine copyright. The panelists also punted on whether authors should retain copyright on their works, with "many members" recommending the creation of a "task force on the status of the author."

Observers grumble that the report is short on specifics. But Yale librarian Scott Bennett, who has spent years "in the trenches" watching publishers and libraries "moving into very defensive camps," says it's a major accomplishment that the panelists were able to agree on the importance of seeking a broad consensus on the fate of copyright.