The Illustrated Story of Copyright

Book Review by Deon Dempsey,
University of Texas at Austin

Libraries & Culture
Vol. 37, No. 3
Summer 2002


            Harmonizing copyright law and copyright lore with informal humor and lively illustrations, Edward Samuels presents the history of copyright law in an easy-to-understand format.  Beginning with current controversies over digital technologies, computer software, and infringement, Samuels looks to the past, sketching his information in a historical context and transforming what often appear as rather dry facts into a spirited illustrated story.

            A professor of law (copyright, intellectual property, commercial law, bankruptcy, and contracts) at New York Law School, Samuels has written extensively on the subject.  His present effort focuses on current issues as a means to deflate outside assessments that claim copyright law is obsolete when applied to the Internet.  Tracing prior tools as links to new technologies, Samuels illustrates how copyright law adapts to a new phenomenon.

            Part 1 opens with sections on forms of expression affected by copyright, from the printing press to photocopying, player pianos to digital sound, Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope to cable television, and the telegraph to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Part 2 covers copyright basics: what copyright protects; what rights are granted; limitations, exclusions, and compromises; copyright principles; and international copyright relations.  Throughout, Samuels amplifies his text with interesting sidebars and over 240 illustrations, cross-referencing each expression to relevant discussions of inventors, authors, and users who shaped modern copyright law. 

            In a sidebar for the chapter on music and sound recording, Samuels examines contemporary issues of MP3 music-sharing litigation and the Internet.  In 1992 the music industry predicted that the digital audio tape recorder would be revolutionary.  Major industry companies, concerned with multiple generation copying, proposed a compromise to address the issue of digital audio home recording.  They asked Congress to pass laws demanding a compulsory licensing fee and the “serial copy management chip” that would protect the rights of and generate money for copyright owners.  The problem, states Samuels, was that nobody bought the recorders; instead, Americans began downloading MP3 files from the Internet.  At the time Samuels’s book went to press, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was beginning to press lawsuits such as the “Napster” suit against various parties for distributing unauthorized MP3 files over the Internet.

            Several chapters touch on issues protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.  The last chapter, however, outlines the developments of international copyright reforms and how international cooperation affects the world.  Outlining copyright law in the United States and its parallel development with other countries, the author points out why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed and notes that its passing was in response to recommendations and treaties adopted under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

            Samuels’s lucid, succinct, yet fun-to-read discussions, complete with valuable legal rulings, illustrated text, and informative sidebars, manage to convey in words and pictures all that anyone needs to know about the theory and practice of copyright.  Its easy-to-understand and colorful language will attract many, from high school students to university professors.  For online reference, Samuels offers his website at


Deon Dempsey, University of Texas at Austin

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