The Illustrated Story of Copyright

Review by Raymond Dowd,
for The Lawyer's Bookshelf,
The New York Law Journal (May 25, 2001)

A lawyer without history or literature is a mechanic . . .
        -Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

        Do you know the difference between a pirate and a bootlegger? Want to know how compulsory licensing forced black musicians to allow white musicians to perform their songs - literally knocking them off the charts during the British pop invasion? Or how Mark Twain, Margaret Mitchell and Gilbert and Sullivan felt about getting ripped off? Or why copyright law's failure to protect ideas or functional elements let Microsoft take a graphical user interface from Apple and go on to conquer the world with Windows?

       The Illustrated Story of Copyright is an intellectual history of our culture, and the names and works featured form the cultural and commercial landscape upon which our postmodern world moves. Oscillating between highbrow and low, Professor Samuels uses simple, clear language and a fascinating collage of pictures, charts, diagrams and historical anecdotes to take us on a journey from the birth of book publishing to the latest electronic pulse of the Internet. During the voyage we learn of the great copyright martyrs like Harriet Beecher Stowe who never received payment for Uncle Tom's Cabin. We are drawn into the wonderful early copyright-free American publishing world where typesetters worked round-the-clock to foil British copyrights and produce pirated versions of the work of Dickens and others.

        As we fly through the celebrity-studded tidbits and dastardly tales, Professor Samuels lays out a clear vision of copyright law as a force for good, a wonderful tool to stimulate and reward creative urges. We view copyright as an ever-evolving system that at times works harsh results when it loses touch with new technological developments or when courts or Congress fail to understand or adapt to technological or economic changes. Professor Samuels credits copyright protection as the catalyst for a home-grown American literature and argues his point convincingly. In every field of authorship, fair and reasonable copyright protection has stimulated and rewarded human creativity.

        Through historical examples, Samuels teaches that copyright law is the result of compromises between competing economic interests. He shows that when Congress has legislated fairly in response to technological changes, it has properly safeguarded the relative commercial interests of the creator and of the publisher or user of the creative work.

        The U.S. copyright statute provides:

copyright protection subsists . . . in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

        Appropriately to this definition of copyright, the first half of The Illustrated Story of Copyright reviews technological advances and how those advances affected the many ways original works of authorship may be reproduced. In "Books and Other Literary Works," we see how the photocopier changed our copyright laws. In "Music and Sound Recordings," we skip from the player piano to digital audio transmissions and learn why there are no stores in which you can rent CDs. In "Movies and Television," we move from the kinetograph and peephole machines to video rentals and high-definition television. In "The Computer," we are taught in 23 pages how a computer and programming works, how copyrightable elements are distinguished from functional elements in the internal workings of a computer and just how dazzling photo retouching and 3-D rendering programs are. In "The Internet," we move seamlessly from the telegraph to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and how it shapes the World Wide Web.

        The second half of the book, entitled "Copyright Basics," takes us through what copyright protects, what rights copyright grants, copyright limitations, exclusions and compromises and a history of international copyright relations. Step-by-step we are guided through the concepts of "originality" and "fixation" contained in the definition of copyright and taken through the struggle of our judicial system to define creativity and what may be copied. We follow as courts distinguish between an unprotectable idea and the "expression" of the idea and see the extent to which expression may be protected under copyright.

        On the international front, we learn how the United States was the world's copyright rebel until recently - failing to protect foreign copyrights and to fall in line with the world's view of the degree of legal protections for authors. Professor Samuels navigates international treaties, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. International economic imbalances driving copyright law developments worldwide are analyzed and explained.

        The illustrations in this volume are not, as in most works, decorative. In copyright jurisprudence, visuals or sounds demonstrate a court's copyright decisions more clearly and accurately than the verbal descriptions and philosophizing that we find in two-dimensional prose judicial opinions. Multimedia presentations like The Illustrated Story of Copyright serve as a model for the copyright legal briefs of the future, where advocates will argue pictorially not only from the controversy on trial, but from pictures, videos and songs of past controversies embedded in multimedia electronic briefs. Federal judicial clerks of the near future will hum, watch and use a joystick as they view copyright briefs.

        Professor Samuels' work has given us a taste of this multimedia future. Using folder icons at the bottom of many pages leading to simple cross-references, this user-friendly work has a visually pleasing solution to the pain and pedantic stigma of footnotes. Of course, there's an on-line companion. To get sound samples, updates, book reviews, supplemental articles and to chat with the author, visit In the spirit of interactivity, I sent an e-mail and heard back from Professor Samuels within minutes.

        With its sound scholarship, The Illustrated Story of Copyright succeeds brilliantly. In a mere 250 pages it makes clear and resolves seemingly disparate elements of an area of law that dominates our collective economic and cultural future. But this is not its true success. Its highest achievement is communicating in a novel manner one man's love affair with the tangible achievements of the human mind in all forms to a general audience. General practitioners will find demystification, copyright practitioners will find depth. Buy it.

Raymond J. Dowd, a partner at Dowd & Marotta PC, is a trial attorney in New York City and chairman of the Media Law Committee of the New York County Lawyers' Association.

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