The Internet has become a cyber version of the Wild West, where few rules exist to curb an enthusiastic fight about ownership and ideas.
The ease of communicating and marketing via the Internet has brought about a pitched struggle for copyrights, trademarks and other money-making endeavors.
“It’s just that the law doesn’t cover the latest technology — Facebook or Twitter or Kindle,” said Ian O’Neill, an attorney with Holland and Hart who is building a niche practice focused on the Internet and business law. “It’s definitely a growth area — growing exponentially on a weekly basis, especially increasing in areas relating to Web 2.0.”
Recent law only covers who’s responsible for items posted on Web sites, he said. It assumes a relationship between two entities — the Web site owner and the person posting on the Web. But the Internet is a vastly more complicated place these days.
“Someone can still post something, and it gets repeated in tweets, copied onto Facebook pages, and there’s no recourse,” he said. “You can ask that they take it down, and Facebook will, but by that time, it’s been copied a thousand times over.”
And no one knows who is ultimately responsible for the content, because the latest technology allows people to post and repost at a very fast rate.
“A tweet, for example, can go up, be copied and go around the world in seconds,” he said. “And Twitter isn’t responsible for that information. They’ve lost control of the information, and the rules that are in place are simply trying to fit square pegs into round holes.”
Some people believe the cyber world is the midst of a “social, political and economic revolution” that will pit Web 2.0, net neutrality and cyber issues against business process patents and outdated copyright laws.
“The bloody fights are not over natural resources and access to emerging markets, but over use and ownership of ideas,” said Larry Downes, partner in the Bell-Mason Group writing for Stanford’s Center on Internet and Society. “But the battles of the information revolution will be fought with just as much violence as their 19th century predecessors, because the economic stakes are just as high.”
Currently, those battles are being fought in courtrooms and state capitals, as the nation struggles to redefine laws during the Digital Revolution.
Something needs to be done to clarify ownership rules, O’Neill said. Currently, any book downloaded on Kindle can be removed by Amazon, he said. Any application on an I-phone still belongs to the carrier — not the person who paid for the download.
“It’s the same with I-tunes,” he said. “There are issues that weren’t present before. If you bought a book from a store, that book was yours. You could re-sell it at a used book store. But you cannot resell a book on your kindle, nor can you re-sell something from I-tunes.”
In the digital age, it has been decided that people purchase the rights to a single digital copy, much as they purchase the single book.
“But further copies belong to the author,” O’Neill said. “That’s where the difference comes in. If you copy it again, you’re in violation.”
But cyberspace really isn’t the Wild West — nor is a separate dimension where the law doesn’t apply. Even in cyberspace, copyright and trademark infringements are tracked down and stopped.
However, most legal experts agree: the law needs to address the rapidly changing technology in the digital age. And at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, Ryan Callo said it is time to address ownership.
“(What we are developing) is software with a service, when people no longer own what they buy,” he said on the center’s Web site. “Digital products become evolving, and hence, unstable services that a company may alter or even destroy.”
And as the upheavals of the digital revolution subside, order will come in the form of new laws, Downes said.
“The result will be a new legal infrastructure better suited to the new economic realities of information and the technology that spreads it,” he said in a blog post. “Better, not perfect… 200 million Americans can’t be felons.”