Intellectual Property Law and the Net: Contributory Infringement

Yousuf Dhamee '96

A final issue in intellectual property law and the Net involves the problem of contributory infringement . The question regards whether or not Internet carriers can be held accountable for the violations of their clients. Prodigy or Compuserve provide a service which facilitates copyright violations. What are their rights and responsibilities? As Raug notes there is considerable similarity between this issue and one that surfaced in the 1980'a: the advent of videotapes. Sony was tried on the charge of contributory infringement because they sold blank videocassettes which were then used to illegally "dub" films and TV broadcasts. At the time the court ruled that Sony was not accountable, because their product also had other important uses which violated no laws. Clearly, America On-line is in a similar situation. This situation has not prevented courts from finding against Web site owners who allowed (sometimes unknowingly) materials like video games to be copied on their pages.

In conclusion it is worth noting the words of Margaret Jane Radin, a Stanford law professor who notes that the value of electronic communication is not strictly economic. She points out that many "objects" have a value to the owners which is "incommensurable with dollars." Clearly much artistic and intellectual work retains this characteristic. Rarely do poets or Comparative Lit professors publish for pure financial gain. Currently, however, the law treats information in a purely economic manner. It assumes that authors' demand for protection centers on money. In many cases, however, all they are interested in is recognition for their intellectual advancements. The law must find a way of striking many balances: progress and protection, remuneration and recognition.