Copyright is an important issue in our society. Not just for authors and creators (or "content producers", as some might put it), but for readers and researchers and the public in general ("content consumers"). Simply put, the idea is that the government gives creators a monopoly over the intellectual property they have created, thereby allowing them to make a living and encouraging them to create, potentially enriching the human experience.
However, as long as the creator has that monopoly, everyone else is restricted in how they're allowed to use it. Hence the limitations on copyright. The principle of fair use, for instance, lets people quote a portion of a work for research or review. Additionally, after a period of time has passed the copyright expires and the work becomes public domain. This is why anyone with a printing press can publish copies of Shakespeare or Mark Twain.
That's the theory, anyway. Most copyrights these days belong to large media companies, which have been doing all they can to extend the power of copyrights. Their primary tool here is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is also fueling the DeCSS lawsuits I mentioned on Monday.
Right now, the big copyright story is the Saga of Napster. To summarize: Napster offerred a service allowing people to easily trade digitized music files (generally compressed with the MPEG-1 Layer III, or MP3, format). The problem here is that people are getting copies of music without paying for them, which represents a loss of revenue for the recording industry (and also the original artists). Despite any arguments one might make in favor of this ("Information wants to be free", "I wouldn't have bought the album anyway", "I prefer to try before I buy") the fact is this is still happening without the artists' permission.
This isn't without precedent. After all, one can easily read books for free, and anyone can buy an inexpensive electronic device which allows them to freely play music broadcast through electromagnetic waves. Despite that, people still buy books and music. Go figure.
Nevertheless, the recording industry is dead set on eliminating Napster. (This may not be their best move, as the destruction of Napster will probably lead to increased usage of Gnutella, which is decentralized and therefore has no central organization to sue, and FreeNet, which is also decentralized and obscures where the files are actually located. On the other hand, studies of Gnutella have shown that most of its users don't actually contribute files, leaving it vulnerable and inefficient.)
So: If the recording industry wins, the artists will be able to create without worrying about getting ripped off, right? Well, not necessarily. The recording industry has also done its best to claim music rights for itself by subtly changing the definition of "work for hire", which is a class of intellectual property owned by its author's employer, to include sound recordings. That is to say, every piece of music recorded by a musician would be owned by the record company instead of its author.
Understandably, musicians were not too pleased about this. Courtney Love has already pointed out how strongly recording contracts favor the record company, comparing the situation to share-cropping. For every band that rakes in the dough, hundreds more wind up in debt to their record companies. Not an encouraging thought. #