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Copyright law faces sea change

Courts lean toward greater access to art on the Internet versustraditional ownership

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A scene that could come from any of the past four centuries: An artist paints a picture and attempts to exhibit and sell the work.

A scenario, however, that has been only possible over the past decade: The artist's image is scanned into a computer, placed on the Internet, and downloaded worldwide, wherever someone wants a copy.

Fortunately, for Michael Whelan, a book illustrator in Danbury, Conn., a friend of his happened to be looking through a computer bulletin board when he came upon a few of Mr. Whelan's images that he recognized. They were being offered for sale.

Nowhere did it say that Whelan was the artist, and, in fact, the copyright notice had been deleted. The images themselves had been somewhat altered. In one case, mountains were replaced by a sign that said "Welcome to the World of Macintosh."

At least two copyright laws were violated by an unknown number of electronic services that had appropriated Whelan's work.

But if Whelan was fortunate to have a friend find his work on a computer bulletin board, New York City illustrator Bill Lombardo was a little less fortunate. A friend found his work on a bulletin board, but, before "I could bring a lawsuit, the company that had done this had gone out of business," he says.

What is copyright?

Copyright refers to the right to make and distribute copies of one's artwork. It involves the exclusive use of private property. And it often appears in conflict with the computer world, which values usable and immediate public access. "The ethos of the Internet," says Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University in New York City, "is that anything online may be downloaded, cut, copied, and sent along to others."

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