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Computer Downloads and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act

15 January, 2016 - 09:34

The ubiquity of the Internet and the availability of personal computers with large capacities have greatly impacted the music business. Sharing of music files took off in the late 1990s with Napster, which lost a legal battle on copyright and had to cease doing business. By providing the means by which individuals could copy music that had been purchased, major record labels were losing substantial profits. Grokster, a privately owned software company based in the West Indies, provided peer-to-peer file sharing from 2001 to 2005 until the US Supreme Court’s decision in MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. 1

For computers with the Microsoft operating system, the Court disallowed the peer-to-peer file sharing, even though Grokster claimed it did not violate any copyright laws because no files passed through its computers. (Grokster had assigned certain user computers as “root supernodes” that acted as music hubs for the company and was not directly involved in controlling any specific music-file downloads.)

Grokster had argued, based on Sony v. Universal Studios, 2 that the sale of its copying equipment (like the Betamax videocassette recorders at issue in that case) did not constitute contributory infringement “if the product is widely used for legitimate, unobjectionable purposes.” Plaintiffs successfully argued that the Sony safe-harbor concept requires proof that the noninfringing use is the primary use in terms of the product’s utility.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed into law in 1998, implements two 1996 treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization. It criminalizes production and sale of devices or services intended to get around protective measures that control access to copyrighted works. In addition, the DMCA heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet. The DMCA amended Title 17 of the United States Code to extend the reach of copyright, while limiting the liability of the providers of online services for copyright infringement by their users.


Copyright is the legal protection given to “authors” for their “writings.” It protects ideas in fixed, tangible form, not ideas themselves. Copyright protection can extend as long as 120 years from the date of creation or publication. Expression found in literary works, music, drama, film, art, sculpture, sound recordings, and the like may be copyrighted. The fair use doctrine limits the exclusivity of copyright in cases where scholars, critics, or teachers use only selected portions of the copyrighted material in a way that is unlikely to affect the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.


  1. Explain how a list could be copyrightable.
  2. An author wrote a novel, Brunch at Bruno’s, in 1961. She died in 1989, and her heirs now own the copyright. When do the rights of the heirs come to an end? That is, when does Brunch at Bruno’s enter the public domain?
  3. Keith Bradsher writes a series of articles on China for the New York Times and is paid for doing so. Suppose he wants to leave the employ of the Times and be a freelance writer. Can he compile his best articles into a book, Changing Times in China, and publish it without the New York Times’s permission? Does it matter that he uses the word Times in his proposed title?
  4. What kind of file sharing of music is now entirely legal? Shaunese Collins buys a Yonder Mountain String Band CD at a concert at Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado. With her iMac, she makes a series of CDs for her friends. She does this six times. Has she committed six copyright violations?