Communications technology has come a long way since the days of Alexander Graham Bell’s first experimental telephone call and Marconi’s discoveries of wireless telegraphy. The convergence of functionality for consumer electronic products has allowed an individual to connect to the Internet using a personal computer, cell phone, and even a television. Broadband telecommunications allows simultaneous downloading and uploading of large quantities of data, including video, audio, and text, at high rates of speed. Along with the proliferation of access to information from websites controlled by citizens, businesses, and the government, has come growing concerns regarding intellectual property theft.
In the United States, the business of content is very large and the financial value of intellectual property is exceptional. There are lawyers, executives, and government officials whose full-time responsibility is to protect that value. However, in the early part of the decade it was not uncommon to walk into a high school student’s dorm room and see a computer filled with illegally download songs from Napster, a peer-to-peer distribution program that allowed files to be transferred between users, without any accountability for compensation to the owners of the material. Although the courts required Napster to change their model to a pay service, some thought that an entire generation had become accustomed to obtaining their content for free and would continue to do so. This is due to the difficulty of stopping P2P services, especially those operating in foreign territories, as opposed to websites that rely on central servers that can be isolated and shutdown. It was not until 2003, when Apple Inc., unveiled the iTunes store, that it became popular to purchase electronic copies of digital content. The challenge for the legal system is to monitor and enforce effective laws that respect content creators, while the companies that own the rights to the content must face the task of establishing business models that make economic sense for the consumer.
Even relatively well-established public companies have had issues complying with and navigating copyright laws that pertain to digital rights management. For example, Amazon’s Kindle wireless reading device allowed the downloading of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 for free. When Amazon was notified that the publisher of the material actually did not have rights to the work, they remotely deleted all copies from users accounts and devices. This led to an outcry from customers who claimed that the online retailer violated their own terms of service contract. Although the company put out a statement indicating that they would refrain from resorting to such measures in the future, one citizen of Washington state filed a federal class-action lawsuit that sought “monetary and injunctive relief.”