Before Napster and LimeWire, before Megauploads and the Pirate Bay, media companies’ epic struggle against copying, piracy and generally losing control over their creations can be traced to a legal fight more than 30 years ago over a device that has long since passed on to the great trash heap in the sky: the Sony Betamax.
[…] Last week, the Supreme Court made another call that could have equally far-reaching implications. The ruling referred only to printed books, another technology that predates the Internet. Yet it, too, is likely to reshape the information economy in unexpected ways.
In a 6-to-3 decision, the court took sides with Supap Kirtsaeng, a Thai math student at Cornell who generated roughly $900,000 in revenue reselling in the United States cheap textbooks that his friends and relatives sent from Thailand.
[…] The decision picks at the scab of an argument that has raged since the first copyright law was enacted in 18th-century Britain: how to balance the interest of copyright holders to profit from their creations — giving them an incentive to create more — against the social goal of promoting access to the movies, books and software programs they create.
Like the Betamax decision in 1984, the Supreme Court’s ruling last week underscores the challenges placed by globalization and information technology on the very idea of protecting intellectual property. It adds to a maze of laws, legal decisions and technological barriers governing what companies and people can do with their stuff in the new economy. And it will probably change the way companies deliver media.