What is copyright?

The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act 2011 – we’ll call it “the copyright
amendments” for short – added new material to New Zealand’s copyright law. Copyright law has existed in New Zealand in some form or another since 1842. Back then, only book authors could have a copyright, or the right to make copies of their books. This right lasted 28 years. This meant that anyone aside from the author who printed, imported, sold or tried to sell a copy of the author’s book without the author’s permission in that 28 year period would face a penalty under copyright law.

Today, copyright lasts 50 years. In some countries it lasts much longer. More importantly,
copyright today exists in many more “works” – as the law calls them – than just books. Pretty much anything printed or capable of being shown on a screen, played out on a stage, seen in a gallery or heard on the radio can be copyrighted. Computer programs like Microsoft Office can be copyrighted. Video games can be copyrighted. What can’t be copyrighted? Inventions – that’s what “patents” do, or phrases or logos used in commerce – that’s what “trademarks” do.

Who owns a copyright? The “author” of the “work” – as the law calls them – for example the composer of the song, the painter of the painting or the author of the book. But the author can sell or trade his or her copyright to another. For example, the record label that fronts money to produce an album with an artist will have an agreement with that artist — the label gets the artist’s copyright and, in exchange, the artist receives royalty payments. Movie studios have these agreements with everyone involved in making the movie.

There are differing explanations for why copyright exists, but everyone agrees that unauthorized copying has become easier than ever with digital technology. For example, in the 1980s you could copy a song on a cassette tape onto another cassette tape. But you’d have to buy a blank cassette tape and find the right machine to make the copy. Plus, the sound quality wouldn’t be that great. Now you can make a perfect copy of a song in an mp3 file with the click of a mouse and immediately share it with someone on the other side of the planet.

While this technology has many benefits, it also makes it more difficult for copyright owners to enforce their copyrights. The copyright amendments were made for this reason – to give copyright owners a easier way to stop others from copying their works – movies, music, computer programs, video games, etc – through filesharing over peer to peer networks.