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A Public Policy Report

Second edition, revised and updated, © 2003 by Marjorie Heins.      

Copyright – our system for protecting and encouraging creativity – has been described as "the engine of free expression." But copyright can also interfere with free speech – with the public's right to share, enjoy, criticize, parody, and build on the works of others. Resolving these conflicting claims requires policymakers to strike a sometimes difficult balance between rewarding creativity through the copyright system and society's interest in the free flow of information and ideas.

A critical component of this difficult balance is the system of free-expression "safety valves" within copyright law. Four important safety valves are the "idea/expression dichotomy," the law of fair use, the "first-sale" rule, and the public domain – the concept that after a certain period of time, copyright owners should no longer have monopoly control over the uses and distribution of their creations.

But the copyright/free expression balance has become lopsided in recent years. For example, with the advent of electronic communications, and in particular the Internet, the media companies that make up the "copyright industry" have adopted techniques of "digital rights management," which control the accessing and use of creative materials in ways that are often inconsistent with a free and democratic copyright system.

FEPP's report outlines the basic copyright law, including the major court cases, and describes some of the most pressing contemporary problems - the overly long term of copyright protection and consequent shrinking of the public domain, the "Digital Millennium Copyright Act," and battles over peer-to-peer file-sharing. It also summarizes the ways that public interest groups, scholars, librarians, artists, computer scientists, and others in the growing "copyleft" movement are responding to the crisis with projects that encourage the sharing of information and creative works.

Conflicts between "strong" copyright control and free expression today occupy center stage in the public policy arena. The diversity and vitality of our culture depends on resolving these conflicts in a way that maximizes artistic and intellectual freedom.

For a copy of the FEPP report, click here. For a free copy of the printed report, email
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The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

All material on this site is covered by a Creative Commons "Attribution - No Derivs - NonCommercial" license. (See You may copy it in its entirely as long as you credit the Free Expression Policy Project and provide a link to the Project's Web site. You may not edit or revise it, or copy portions, without permission (except, of course, for fair use). Please let us know if you reprint!