The Internet and Protecting Intellectual Property

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), an agency of the United Nations dedicated to the application of intellectual property like patents, copyright, and trademarks “as a means of stimulating innovation and creativity,” intellectual property (IP) refers to entities created in the human mind, such as inventions (Apple IPad), literary and artistic works (novels, short stories, poems, painting, screenplays, music, etc.), and “symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce” like trademark logos, copyrighted character names, and company logos (WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook, 2004, p. 5).

Basically, intellectual property falls into two specific categories–1), industrial property, such as patents, trademarks, and industrial designs; and 2), copyright which includes “plays, films, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and architectural designs.” This second category also incorporates all legal rights regarding the performance, recording, and/or broadcasting of music, the spoken word, and radio and television programs (WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook, 2004, p. 6).

Prior to the rise of technology following the end of World War II in 1945, copyright and trademark laws protected almost all intellectual property in the form of books, movies, plays, music, patents, and other forms of industrial and artistic property. Of course, copyright and trademark protections still exists today, but with the advent of the World Wide Web or the Internet, protecting intellectual property has become a serious issue, due in part to the process of globalization and easy access via the Internet to copyrighted and trademark protected intellectual property. From a technological  viewpoint, computers have made it possible for individuals to access millions of documents, literary creations, videos, and movies that are protected by copyright and trademark laws and to skirt these laws in relation to fair use and copying. One important example is when students “cut and paste” material from a copyrighted source and use this material for their own purposes without giving fair credit to the creators or copyright holders.

Therefore, in today’s global community, intellectual property protection is of prime importance. As noted by the U.S. Department of State, intellectual property that is accessible on the Internet must be protected, due to knowing that “safeguarding these property rights fosters economic growth, provides incentives for technological innovation, and attracts investment that will create new jobs and opportunities” in not only the U.S. but also on a global scale. In addition as noted by the U.S. Department of State, more than 50% of American exports, whether as industrial or copyrighted property, “now depends on some form of intellectual property protection compared to less than 10%” during the early 1960’s (Intellectual Property Law & Legal Definitions, 2013).

This viewpoint is clearly supported by a number of leading American business owners and entrepreneurs who have utilized the Internet to create vast fortunes while also changing the way people express themselves and communicate with one another. As an unidentified writer for The Economist sees it, the growth of the Internet and related computer technologies have “placed a premium on new ideas and innovations” (Intellectual Property Law & Legal Definitions, 2013), meaning that protected intellectual property often serves as the impetus for new discoveries and innovation in the sciences and the arts. Protected intellectual property on the Internet also makes it possible for creative individuals to “come up with new ideas and to enjoy the exclusive use of that idea” for a limited period of time via being the copyright holder for a certain number of years (Intellectual Property Law & Legal Definitions, 2013).

As to the rules and regulations laid out by federal law concerning the protection of intellectual property, “new challenges to the existing network of IP regulations” are apparently coming to the forefront on a daily basis, due mostly to the “rapid and worldwide spread of access to the Internet and the ease with which electronic data may be copied and manipulated” (Intellectual Property Law & Legal Definitions, 2013).

Thus, in the coming years of the 21st century, the complex process related to protecting intellectual property, especially on the World Wide Web, will require unforeseen and clever adjustments in order to fulfill “the new demands created by the information age” and the growing demand for knowledge. As J. Litman observes in her groundbreaking book Digital Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet, the World Wide Web “has been hailed as the most revolutionary social development” since the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450, and its unparalleled growth and expansion has created new problems related to protecting intellectual property. But most importantly, the Internet is responsible for the ever-present “explosion of new possibilities for connections among people and ideas” (2001, p. 12) which greatly increases the need for IP protection.

With all this in mind, we will now explore how the Internet has created new problems associated with protecting intellectual property from being stolen, plagiarized, and/or sold to the highest bidder without any kind of compensation for the creator or copyright/trademark holder. Most of the following information has been retrieved from the WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook: Policy, Law, and Use, originally published in 2004 by the World Intellectual Property Organization. One specific mission of this organization serves as the foundation for what follows–to identify and explore the problems created by digital technology and the Internet in relation to protecting intellectual property (2008, p. 5).

First of all, we must ask how the Internet has contributed to the problems linked to protecting intellectual property. Outside of its technical aspects via a “global system of connected networks that operate together by virtue of the use of common and open, non-proprietary protocol” and “hypertext markup language” (WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook, 2008, p. 495), the Internet has evolved over the last thirty years or so from a scientific/academic network or database for scientists and researchers into a network or database for the common people, a.k.a. the World Wide Web of interconnectivity and accessibility.

Therefore, as an “open network” and as perhaps the largest database in existence, today’s Internet provides immediate access to a “digital environment in which multiple perfect copies of text, images and sounds can be easily made and transmitted” and in which copyrighted material and trademarks can be misappropriated in the blink of an eye for a myriad of legal and illegal purposes (WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook, 2008, p. 495). Of course, those with the most to lose related to this scenario are intellectual

property owners and the holders of copyrights on a vast assortment of documents, books, videos, music, and trademark logos for businesses and corporations.

Perhaps the most intensive effort in recent years to protect intellectual property in relation to the Internet occurred in Paris in 1982 when the Internet was in its infancy and was generally only available to scientists and researchers. As outlined in the report of the Second Committee of Governmental Experts on Copyright Problems Arising from the Use of Computers for Access to or the Creation of Works, intellectual property is fully protected in two ways–1), the input of a work, such as a textbook or an academic scholarly paper, into a computer system which includes “the reproduction of the work on a machine-readable material support, and the fixation of the work in the memory of the computer system;” and 2), the “output of a protected work from a computer system is fully protected under copyright law” which includes “hardcopy print-out, a fixation in machine-readable form, transmission from the database of one system into the memory of another system” (i.e., downloading protected material and transferring it to another computer or hard drive) and “making the work available to the public by audio or visual images” (WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook, 2008, p. 440), such as one finds on websites like YouTube and Facebook.

However, despite all of the international and domestic laws, rules, regulations, and policies related to protecting intellectual property on the Internet, a myriad of problems continues to plague the owners of intellectual property and those who hold copyrights. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, intellectual property theft via the World Wide Web has been shown to be responsible for the loss of millions of jobs in the U.S. and overseas, extensive damage to the reputations of intellectual property owners and copyright holders, the loss of tax revenues, and the spread of organized crime syndicates that steal intellectual property, especially music and movies accessible on the Internet, for their own financial gain and without any consideration for reimbursing the owners and/or copyright holders. As noted by the United States Chamber of Commerce Intellectual Property Center, one clear-cut incentive for the theft of intellectual property is due to the fact that the calculated worth or value of intellectual property in the United States is in excess of  $5.5 trillion (Intellectual Property Theft, 2013).

As of 2013, there are three distinct types of media that are often the focus of intellectual property theft on the Internet–music, movies, and games. In legal terms, this is often referred to as piracy or the “illegal copying and distribution of music, movies, and games from the Internet” via downloading a piece of music, a popular game, or a recently-released or unreleased movie without paying for it and then distributing the music, game, or movie to other Internet users. In many instances, when a “pirate” places a musical recording or an entire movie on the Internet without compensating the owner or copyright holder, it remains in the “virtual cloud” of the Internet forever, thus depriving the creator or intellectual property owner of income in the form of royalties (Intellectual Property Theft, 2013).

The problem of piracy and the theft of intellectual property on the Internet is so great that some researchers have suggested that the piracy of music, movies, and games has placed the companies that make and distribute these products into a “death spiral” wherein profits could be potentially eliminated. For example, due to the widespread downloading of music and movies from the Internet over the last ten years or so, the legitimate global sales of these types of media have decreased by almost 70% (Intellectual Property Theft, 2013).

In response to this staggering number, many companies that make and distribute recorded music and movies have devised “padlocks” or anti-piracy protection on their CDs and DVDs (Intellectual Property Theft, 2013). Unfortunately, this type of electronic protection does not apply to music and movies on the Internet, thus making it nearly impossible to stop “pirates” from placing their own copies of media materials on the Internet for downloading by other users.

In essence, the problems associated with protecting intellectual property on the Internet which the World Intellectual Property Organization refers to as the “network of networks” with open standards, can be assigned to a single phenomenon–the “prodigious international expansion in the number of Internet users and the range of applications” that are currently available to users of the World Wide Web. According to WIPO’s estimates, there are more than 500 million Internet users worldwide and by the year 2020, this number is expected to double to more than a billion users, especially when we take into consideration the immense economic expansion that is now occurring in China and India (WIPO Intellectual Property Handbook, 2008, p. 441). Therefore, in order to protect intellectual property from theft and misuse, international governments and organizations that monitor the use of the Internet will be forced to create new laws and regulations. However, due to the number of current users and the expected number of users in the near future, fully protecting intellectual property may prove to be an extremely daunting task that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. alone, not to mention the cost on a global scale which could exceed the entire treasury of a small nation.


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Litman, J. (2001). Digital copyright: Protecting intellectual property on the  Internet. New York: Prometheus Books, Inc.

WIPO intellectual property handbook: Policy, law, and use. (2008). Retrieved from