Copyright Challenges in the Digital Age

Written by Jack Levinson

When you think of copyright law, it’s likely that the traditional contexts for issues of usage and infringement come to mind, such as an author’s rights to their book when it is being adapted for film or a musician’s rights to their music when it is used in a TV show. However, in contemporary times, copyright law has necessarily evolved to address more complex needs.

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The reality is that the landscape of copyright law has changed dramatically over the past thirty years, as innovative media forms have created new situations that give rise to opportunities for usage and infringement.

Indeed, copyright lawyers in the 21st century spend much of their time occupied with cases that could never have transpired before the rise of the Internet, even creating a new category of intellectual property – “de-materialized objects” – that have required new approaches to copyright law.

For copyright lawyers, this is an exciting moment, as it means their work will set important precedents for a legal framework that seems destined to only continue to grow with time. If you are thinking of applying to law school or are already a law student who is contemplating your area of specialty, becoming a copyright lawyer could be a richly rewarding path for you.

Read on to learn more about intellectual property law and a variety of copyright challenges in the digital age.

copyright challenges in the digital age

What Is Copyright Law?

Copyright law exists to protect intellectual property – in other words, peoples’ creations that have monetary value which can be reproduced or modified by others. As the U.S. Copyright Office defines it, this includes “original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” Any work of art that is made is technically automatically copyrighted, but the most foolproof way to copyright a work is by registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Once a work of art is copyrighted, it means that it is its owner’s property, and therefore they determine its use. Further – crucially – they can lawfully claim payment for its use as a way of making revenue off of their product. For many artists, licensing copyrighted work is a primary aspect of their business model, meaning it is imperative that they are protected by strong copyright laws.

The Job of Copyright Lawyers

So what exactly do copyright lawyers do? They represent clients in cases of infringement – when their creative work is used without them receiving the compensation they deserve for their original product. This last part is critical: cases of infringement occur in instances when a third party is profiting off of someone else’s creative labor. It is not infringement to play a pop song at a private party among friends, but it is infringement to put that song in an advertising campaign without acquiring a license to it.

The World International Property Organization uses music as an example to illustrate that copyright is the fundamental tool by which musicians make money for their work, explaining, “the economic value of music flows from the intellectual property (IP) rights associated with original works, their performance and dissemination.” In short, intellectual property is what makes it possible to be a professional artist.

Copyright Issues in Digital Media

As technology has pushed media into exciting new frontiers, it has also created fascinating new copyright challenges in the digital age. As consumers, the rise of the Internet and the surge of information sharing means incredible opportunities to appreciate a variety of different forms of content, often at no charge. But these same factors mean that the producers and creators of that content are faced with a host of digital copyright issues, as many artists are finding that digital sharing has dramatically decreased the revenue they are able to generate from their work.

Indeed, for many artists, the rise of digital media has proven disastrous for their business models, as they can no longer make use of some of the traditional forms of intellectual property that they used to monetize. Musicians are a great example of this: while they previously made their primary income through records and CDs that provided them with direct revenue through sales, their music is now primarily distributed on streaming services, where they are paid for (often maligned) licensing agreements. Even highly successful artists have reported this arrangement to be vastly inferior in terms of profit to the previous ways their intellectual property has been commodified.

One of the most interesting jobs of present-day copyright lawyers is assessing this burgeoning arena of intellectual property law to help protect creator rights in the digital age. Many copyright lawyers working today argue that we need to embrace an entirely new approach to copyright challenges in the digital age to account for the primary ways media is distributed and the main ways artists make money from their work. A few of the most notable factors copyright lawyers are considering are described below.


The Rise of Streaming

One of the biggest game-changers for content creators that the Internet has ushered in is streaming. In this day and age, the primary way for people to consume a variety of media forms is through online streaming services, some of which offer subscription plans and others of which are available for free. All of these sharing contexts technically require licensing, but platforms that invite content creation such as YouTube and Twitch make it extremely easy for people to illegally republish the copyrighted work of others.

There are considerable benefits of streaming for artists: streaming platforms can offer them a great deal of exposure that they wouldn’t get elsewhere, as subscription plans make it so that users do not have to purchase any individual artist’s music on its own, significantly raising their likelihood of listening to a new artist. But digital copyright issues often keep these artists from making money that matches their level of visibility.

New Media Formats

Digital copyright issues go beyond new sharing contexts for traditional forms of media; they also include new forms of media altogether. In fact, some have argued that these new types of media have rendered copyright law as we know it obsolete, as the rules for sharing copyrighted material on social media are less than comprehensive and are rarely seriously enforced. Some even argue that the existing intellectual property laws are so complex and require such expertise that few outside of the legal field can understand them, creating a context that is more restrictive for artists than protective. These lawyers demand reform to the field of intellectual property that better accounts for present-day content-sharing formats and improves digital copyright protection.

Consider the GIFs that are available on many messaging services which take short clips from TV shows, movies, and other popular media sources. These clearly repurpose others’ intellectual property, suggesting infringement, but their commercial value is unclear in their primary settings for use, such as private messages and social media posts. Determining the status of these digital articles is one of the many challenges ahead for copyright infringement lawyers.

apps on phone

Social Media and Its Impact in Reframing the Digital Space

It’s possible that there is no more radical of a factor in copyright challenges in the digital age than social media. Apps like TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Twitch are some of the primary places where people disseminate content and where popular clips, songs, and other forms of media “go viral.” Social media is built into the fabric of how we live now, and it has led to a huge proliferation of content of all types, much of which is not currently protected.

TikTok Songs

Popular apps like TikTok give users the ability to manipulate pieces of intellectual property, such as giving the option to include snippets of songs in videos. Indeed, songs that perform well on TikTok have proven to be among the most profitable pieces of intellectual property in the music industry, meaning that artists are anxious for their work to be made available to social media users in this way. In many cases, app companies have negotiated deals with artists to include their work legally in these settings. However, digital technology makes it all too easy to download and repurpose others’ intellectual property illegally, leaving many artists vulnerable and without sufficient legal protection to rectify the situation.

In fact, copyright lawyers help artists on both sides of the scenario listed above: they represent artists to finalize the terms by which apps and individuals can legally make use of their intellectual property, and they also protect artists in cases of copyright infringement. These are both ways in which the work of copyright lawyers will reshape the state of intellectual property law in the digital age.

Streaming Live Concerts

There are similar copyright issues with streaming live concerts, which is another especially popular way to use social media. At present, musical artists simply accept that their performances are going to be live streamed, in some cases to millions more people than purchased tickets for the concert itself. However, it is another example of an artist losing control of their intellectual property due to copyright challenges in the digital age.

Unintentional Copyright Infringement

Most social media users are not professional entertainers, meaning most do not have an advanced knowledge of copyright law. This means it can be easy for regular users of social media platforms to commit copyright infringement unintentionally. For example, if someone makes a promotional TikTok video for their business where they are dancing to a song that isn’t licensed to the app, they are inadvertently infringing upon the artist’s intellectual property, as they are using their creative work to promote their business.

When unintentional copyright infringement happens, it is normally met with a preliminary cease and desist, oftentimes resulting in the infringing post being taken down. Only in rare cases are instances of unintentional intellectual property infringement pursued in court.

Additional Resources

Now that you understand the fundamental copyright challenges in the digital age, you may want to contribute to the evolution of intellectual property. In this case, becoming a copyright lawyer could be the perfect career path for you.

Lawyers are among the top paid professionals in the United States, with The Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting a median annual salary of $127,990. That’s significantly more than double the national average, which is around $50,000 a year. This means that pursuing a career in the legal profession is likely to be a remunerative choice no matter what state you’re in. For more specific information about what you can make as a lawyer, visit our Guide to Lawyer Salaries.

To learn more about the different job opportunities for lawyers, including the requirements and responsibilities for intellectual property lawyers who deal with digital copyright issues, read our Guide to Law Careers.

Finally, if you are planning on taking the next steps to become a lawyer by enrolling in a law degree program, make sure you’re meeting the requirements of the state where you intend to practice. For specific information on the law degree programs available where you live, visit our Index of Lawyer State Requirements.