Copyright has survived the tape recorder and the photocopier. How it will emerge from its tangle with the computer, the Internet and the burgeoning digital media industry is still an open question. Andrew Charlesworth of Hull University's information law and technology unit (Multimedia, page vi) urges the operators of academic World Wide Web sites to be cautious on copyright issues where the law simply has not caught up with technology. Bits travelling along glass fibres cannot be regulated by principles that worked for printed documents.
Next week sees the launch of Ariadne, a print and online magazine that will discuss the impact of digital technology on higher education libraries. Its managing editor, John MacColl of Dundee Abertay University, warns that the fair dealing or fair use provisions in the present law, which allow libraries to make copies for research, may be lost in the Internet age.
This issue is coming to a head in the United States; and any change there will have worldwide impact. Debate centres on Bruce A. Lehman's paper, "Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure" (available from http://iitf.doc.gov). Mr Lehman comes from the media industry, and his paper has been criticised - for example by John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Communications of the ACM, and by Cornell law professor Pamela Samuelson in Wired - for favouring publishing houses and the Hollywood "content" industry at the expense of authors and consumers of intellectual goods.
If its proposals become law, Samuelson foresees that the electronic equivalents of lending a magazine to a friend or copying a news article for your files will require payment. Computers would monitor every use of copyright material.
Academics are in a central position in this debate being both creators of copyright material and users of it for research and teaching. While they may relish the thought of extra pennies trickling into their accounts every time an eye is set on their work, they are in practice bad bargainers because of the relentless pressure to publish or perish.
Alternative models exist. The general rule on the United Kingdom's academic networks is that information is free at the point of use. Reference material like the English poetry database is bulk-bought by the community via the funding councils. From then on students and researchers can browse freely. Several journal publishers, worried at falling sales to libraries, have negotiated cut-price electronic subscription arrangements for academia. This may work for established journals and key reference works but it is less promising for ordinary books and for rapid publication of research. For the latter the Internet seems to offer an answer. Paul Ginsparg's physics preprint archive at Los Alamos National Laboratory is circumventing publishers. But this route would not work for books, and book royalties are sorely needed these days to supplement inadequate salaries.
There are three main players in this game, academics, publishers and institutions. Institutions can no longer afford to buy books, journals and teaching materials on the scale they need for their libraries and students. If countries like the UK are to make a living from their intellectual labour, solutions will have to be found which prevent academics and universities being ripped off. The Educational Copyright Users Forum responded vigorously to last July's European Commission Green Paper on intellectual property. The academic community now needs to engage in what is becoming a global debate. Otherwise, academics may find that every time they publish a paper, write a textbook, distribute notes to students or visit the library, they have to operate by rules designed not for a community of scholars, but for the multimedia entertainment industry.