When you buy a book, you're purchasing the right to read, lend and resell the actual physical compendium of paper and glue that contains the writer's words, not the words themselves.
But what happens when those words are a collection of electronic ones and zeros zipping around the Internet? How does copyright law deal with that?Until now, no one's been too much concerned about copyright on the Net, a web of thousands of computer networks used by more than 10 million people. If there was something you really didn't want other people to use without paying you, you didn't post it on the network.
But as the Internet becomes commercialized, issues of ownership and payment are growing more important - leading to the need for a clarification of how copyrights apply in cyberspace.
The government recently released "Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure: A Preliminary Draft of the Report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights," which suggests changes to copyright law to incorporate on-line communication.
Among the suggestions: Amend the law so that electronic distribution would fall within the exclusive distribution rights of the copyright owner. That would mean finding a way to charge for use of copyrighted materials on the Internet - perhaps a program that recorded each usage and billed accordingly.
It's not an idea without problems. Libraries are worried that information will become a pay-per-use commodity - and America a nation of information "haves" and "have-nots."
"You can extrapolate a world where every bit of information is paid for and it becomes this really tightly controlled commodity. It's a horrible concept," says Karen Coyle, librarian at Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in Berkeley, Calif. "We're supposed to be an informed public."