“As of this writing, the future is murky,” Jessica Litman begins the final chapter of Digital Copyright, first published in 2001. “A wholesale reconceptualization of copyright law seems unlikely. Inertia may be the most powerful of all natural forces.”
This was the beginning of what some were calling the Digital Millennium. In 1998, Congress had passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a book length piece of legislation designed to enhance the legal and technological control of copyright owners. Waves of content industry litigation were sweeping the digital world, knocking down any intermediaries who facilitated individuals’ unauthorized use of copyrighted materials.
In the barren fields these scorched-earth litigation campaigns left behind, the fact remained: revisions to copyright law were never meant to benefit creators. The few companies with the resources necessary to survive infringement suits remained too: Apple, Amazon, and Google, now without competition, grew into dominant distributors and almost “obligatory partners” in any content distribution plan.
With the republication of Digital Copyright as a Maize Book sixteen years after the original, the question persists: do we remain in that murky future, stuck at the crossroads of what property is and is not, who should define it and who does define it, who can enforce it and who will enforce it? Or in this confused state, has a new chapter begun? One that begins the same way 1998 began, with Congress, the Copyright Office, the copyright-affected industries and their lobbyists poised, cash in hand. “We seem to be incapable of learning from our past mistakes,” Litman concludes the 2017 postscript.
When a book is re-published, it suggests the conversation is not over. Books revive prescient issues, re-invigorate our understanding of them, and often remind us of the liberties we take for granted. They invite us to the challenge of learning from our past mistakes.
Digital Copyright is now online and in open access. Print copies can be purchased on Amazon.
Jessica Litman is the John F. Nickoll Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and a widely recognized expert on copyright law.