By Valerie Devoy

Most people are under the assumption that copyright laws are created to serve and protect the right of authors and other content creators. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Copyright law is, in actuality, geared towards protecting publishers and governmental interests; it’s about financial gain and ownership and if not navigated correctly, can result in lawsuits and/or damaged careers (Howard, 1996).  

In the article “Who ‘Owns’ Electronic Texts,” Tharon W. Howard (1996) discusses the history and principles of copyright law and challenges “the popular, romantic view that an author owns his or her text” (p. 398). The article stresses that “today’s professional communicators need to have a more thorough understanding of the principles upon which modern copyright laws are based.” Likewise (and ahead of his time), Howard (1996) discusses how the modern electronic work environment has caused ambiguity around copyright law, making it critical for digital communicators to know principles of ownership.  

Issues of copyrighting arose during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with the invention of the printing press. The printing press dramatically decreased the cost of publishing and therefore created competition among book publishers. This competition created two significant changes that shaped the way U.S copyright laws are written today: these changes were (1) a group of businessmen formed what is known as the Stationers’ Company which allowed publishers to own the rights to books (not authors) and protected them from other publishers trying to publish the same material, and (2) the church lost control over the types of books being published and so tried to regain control through financial incentive, asking the Stationers’ Company to promote certain texts (Howard, 1996). These developments of copyrighting surrounded the needs of business and government and gave next to nothing to the authors. Similarly, today, authors and other content creators are secondary to the publisher or the company.

Because of this shift in publishing, other issues of ownership were suddenly at the forefront of business. For example, in the quote below, Howard (1996) illustrates the difference between a universal truth and an expression of idea:

If I write a piece of software that uses the mathematical equation 2 + 2 = 4 as part of its code, I don’t have to pay anyone for its use, nor can I expect to receive an honorarium every time someone in the United States calculates the sum of 2 + 2, because mathematical principles and algorithms are thought to be universal truths. On the other hand, if people copy the way I used an algorithm in my software, if they borrow my codes’s structure or organization, then they are using my expression, and that expression is copyrighted. (p. 403)

The above example of truth versus expression is straightforward (a mathematical equation is clearly a truth, while software is clearly an expression of this truth), but one can only imagine where these lines might be blurred in the digital age. For example, FaceBook: they technically own all the information provided to them and can use it at their discretion. However, recent news raises ethical concerns around the ownership and use of “owned” content, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal has proven that new policies need to be put into place. This sort of ambiguity exists everywhere in digital media: from posting content on a blog, to data collection, to image manipulation, to software development––copyright laws are being challenged every day by the digital environment. 

These blurry lines, both political and philosophical, are essentially what make modern copyright complicated. Using resources, such as (the copyright law and litigation resource page), can help guide difficult decisions. As professional communicators, it is important to abide by these laws and to not act naively about the material being produced. And overall, it is probably best to act conservatively because electronic work environments propose many complications to these already blurry lines.


Work Cited:

Howard, Tharon W. “Who ‘Owns’ Electronic Texts?” Central Works in Technical Communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 397-408. Print.


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