Monday, August 11, 2014

History and Theory of Copyright Law – part 1

History and Theory of Copyright Law – part 1[1]
What is Copyright? part 10

The earliest copyright laws were written to protect the commercial interests of publishers. [2] They only covered printed works.  The concepts of intellectual property, copyright, and plagiarism prevention are related but not the same.  Copyright[3] is a legal, government sanctioned, monopoly covering the rights such as publication, copying, derivative products, etc.  Copyright has limits defined by law and treaty.  If you break the law you can be sued, fined or sanctioned.  Copyright laws were instituted to encourage the growth and dissemination of knowledge.

Intellectual property is the ownership of the creative efforts of an individual or group.  Intellectual property is owned forever.  When the copyright protection is over, works pass into the public domain and may be freely used, reprinted, and published without violating the law.  However, one can not claim to have written material that was authored by someone else.  Claiming authorship over something that is not yours without proper attribution or quotations, is plagiarism.  Plagiarism is not always illegal.  Plagiarism is morally and professional wrong and you can lose your grade in school, your reputation or your job.  These concepts are frequently confused because the nature of intellectual property has changed over the years and many people think if no one is losing money why is the action wrong.

Before the printing press authors didn’t care too much about intellectual property.  The great writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were happy just to get their ideas spread to the public.  Shakespeare earned his living from producing plays, not publishing the text of the plays.  Even today most authors do not earn their full-time living from their writing.  Many people who write for a living create works for hire with their employer getting full copyright and control over the works.  For example I had a cousin who wrote hundreds of booklets for NASA.  He was not even credited in most of them. My brother earns his living by wiring technical and procedure manuals for clients.  He does not own the copyright to his works.

Graphics, pictures, and kinds of illustrations were not even considered for protection.  Forms of art that had not been invented such as photographs and moving images were not considered with any kind of open ended legal language. Today we have enough have enough imagination to consider forms of art and recordings that have not yet been invented.  In the copyright law it is written concerning what is protected:   “… 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.” [4]

There is a publication distributed in synagogues called Business Weekly [5] which has been devoting a weekly column since July 4, 2014 (Parashat Balak) to copyright and patents[6].  Mostly they do not seem to understand the theory, history and practical application of copyright and the nature of intellectual property.  They also do not seem to understand that copyright and patent laws are vastly different in theory and application. This paper will deal with explaining the history and theory of copyright from a Jewish point of view.  I will probably raise more questions than I answer.  Halacha (Jewish law) parallels the history of secular and governmental copyright protection and law as they trace their roots to the beginning of printing.   Both halacha and secular law recognize that one can benefit from the fruits of one’s labor and should have a right to make a return on their investment.  The author’s rights have changed over the years.

Fundamental questions

The very nature of property that one can not hold or see makes the analysis of author or owner rights and copyright a hazy subject of in case law, statutory law,  and  everyday application.  The ease of copying and publishing electronically confuses many people as to what is actually protected.  Copyright protection enables authors to have control over their creations.  Even if the author does not charge for his/her creation, the work is protected and requires permission to copy.

1. Why is copyright protection needed?

2. Does halacha recognize ownership of intellectual property?
            A. What is intellectual property?
            B. Who is the creator of a work?
            C. Who or what is an author?
            D. What is ownership?

3. What are the limits of copyright protection according halacha and secular law?

4. Do the rules of protection differ based the type of work?  Are Torah works protected differently than secular works?  Is there a difference between music, graphic, and printed works?  Are non-published works protected?  Are non-recorded ideas protected?

5. Are governmental copyright laws and the Berne convention and other international treaties binding according to halacha?  If a country has not accepted the international treaty does halacha say we have to respect any commercial rights?

[This is the opening of the problem. This article will only give you  a taste of some of the history.  A more comprehensive history is found in Privilege and property : essays on the history of copyright  (see full citation in the bibliography to be published in later parts.) Some of these questions were covered in my earlier articles, but I will revisit them with a different focus. This article will be continued and published in parts.]

[1] This is the tenth article in my series on copyright.  It is written in response to hearing confusion concerning intellectual property rights and legal protection of copyrights.

[2]  Illustration notes: Image is from the British Library and is free of known copyright restrictions. Source is an illuminated manuscript: Haggadah for Passover (the 'Ashkenazi Haggadah'), German rite with the commentary of Eleazar of Worms. [Ulm?, Germany, circa 1460.]
A man searching for leaven in a cupboard and brushing crumbs with a feather. The miniature is place in the outer margin, next to the initial word at the beginning of the passage, 'On the day preceding the fourteenth [of Nisan] you search for leaven by the light of a lamp'.

[3]  United States Copyright is codified in Title 17 of U.S. Code. (  The Constitution in Article I, Section 8 granted to Congress the power ... “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”  

[4] Title 17 U.S.C. §102a. 

[5] Business Weekly is published by the Business Halacha Institute (BHI) Brooklyn, NY 11230.  Each week they publish a two page sheet, which may be found online at: .  The online web page lists the issues according to the parashat ha-shavuah (weekly Torah portion).   The form of the articles is to pose a question and then the rest of the article is the answer. 

In halacha and in scholarship in general how one composes the question is an important step in getting a correct and useful answer. 

[6] This paper is concerned with copyright law and theory issues. Copyright does not protect any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery; but they may be protected by patents (Title 17 U.S.C. §102b).  Patents are more difficult to obtain and last for a more limited time than copyright.  Patents need to prove originally; copyrighted materials do not need to prove or claim originality. Patents require a filing procedure and review; copyright protection is automatic and filing is optional.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Durable Goods 3

July 20, 2014

It seems that everything wears out.  Last December I had to replace my microwave and this month I had to replace my clothes washer.  The old washer still looked new on the outside, but inside the pump and the transmission were broken.  Repair would cost more than a new washer. It was long and lingering demise.  I didn’t want to replace the washer before I had to. 

The repairman recommended a washer with minimal electronic gadgetry. It was also much less expensive than the fancy machines.  I searched the online sites of three stores.  The salesman agreed with the repairman. The washer was still on sale for the 4th of July sales.  The repairman said to get the model 4800, however I learned there were two model 4800 – the CU and BQ.  The CU cost $50 more, had a 3.4 cubic foot tub and fewer cycle choices.  The BQ has a 3.7 cubic foot tub.  I bought the BQ model.  The cost was below the threshold for free delivery.  I got an extended warranty for the same cost as delivery.  Then delivery was included.  I had to buy new water hoses to get free installation. 

On Friday (July 18) the washer was installed and the old one was taken away.  The delivery people said the old machine was ancient.  It worked for me for more than 20 years.  I didn’t want a new machine; I was forced to.  The machine had to run a cycle without clothes before I could use it to make sure residue remained from the shipping or manufacture.  The new machine works. It is quieter than the old one and the clothes are clean.

Good by old, leaky machine, hello new washer. 

Dear Little Girl

Usually in this blog I do not express personal opinions off my topic of libraries and information.  Today I must share an emotional event.  I was teary-eyed when I wrote the first draft.

A few weeks ago the daughter, son-in-law and their month old baby went to visit his father in Los Angeles. I have known the daughter and her family since I moved to this block.  She was a toddler when I moved here. I was at their wedding in May 2013.  Two weeks ago the young husband dropped dead of an undiagnosed health problem.  I asked what I could do and was asked to write about her husband.  I agreed even though I really barely know him.  I only met him a few times.  On those times I was very impressed with his kindness, friendliness, wisdom, and excitement to make a wonderful life for his family.  They were indeed a wonderful couple; lucky to find each other.

Below is the letter I wrote for their infant daughter with all the personal details removed.

July 20, 2014

Dear C,

No one is supposed to write a letter like this.  A child is supposed to grow up with the love and guidance of two parents and lots of friends and relatives.  A child is supposed to see their parents grow old.  At the end one is supposed to mourn the passing of parents who have led a long and meaningful life full of Torah, mitzvot and family.

I only knew your father for a very short time.  I met him briefly at the engagement party and at your parents’ wedding. The wedding was so happy with everyone dancing and celebrating.
This past Pesah your parents came to Chicago in anticipation of your birth. Your father was very self-assured and your parents looked so much in love and ready to start a family.  I offered to let them stay at my home.  Your father’s father also came for the first days of yom tov.  In anticipation, your father rearranged the guest room in my home. However they never took me up on the offer. 

In the time between Pesah and June I visited your grandparents and had the opportunity to speak with your father.  The topics were general friendly conversation.  It was at the Shabbat or yom tov table and everyone was participating in the conversation.  Your father was a true ben-Torah and mitzvot.  He took his knowledge and freely shared it with others.  He was a true man of the world and was not stuck in words; he was living Torah as a man of this world.  He knew so much and I wish that some of that great knowledge will someday be part of you.  

After you were born I could see the love of family in his eyes.  Whenever he talked of you he did not have to use words, I could see that he wanted great things for you and your family.  His love of family extended to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Even to me, a friend and neighbor of your grandparents he exhibited a friendship as if I had known him all his life.
When you begin to walk and talk I hope that we will see your father in every step and in every word.  May you be blessed with great knowledge and wisdom. May his eyes always shine through yours and someday you will accomplish all the dreams that he had for you. 

Be strong and stand on the shoulders of giants.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

What is a Plinth?

When I recently reviewed a book (Organizing Exhibitions by Freda Matassa. London, 2014)  on organizing museum  exhibits.  One several  of the check lists are items the curators need.  As the book was written by a British author, several of the choices were more British than American English, but I was able to figure everything out except for the word, “plinth.”  One way to figure out is from context or a glossary in the book.  Here are three examples from the book and none offer clues as to the meaning.  On page 47 is list of installation items, "display cases and plinths."  On page 72, A wide plinth can act as a deterrent." On page 133, "Items on a plinth or shelf can be placed one metre from the edge ..."   I looked for "plinth" in my colegiate dictionary and even though it had the word and a definition, the meaning was not clear.

I looked up "plinth" in the Oxford English Dictionary, which reports “plinth” is on unknown origins.  It appears in ancient Latin and Greek as well as modern French, Spanish, Greek, and German.  If it is a loan word, the original language is not Latin,  Greek or a Semitic language.  OED says the first English use was in the book, The first and chief groundes of architecture vsed in all the auncient and famous monymentes  by John Shute .  1st edition, 1563.  (Note in 1563 English spelling had not yet been standardized.) In folio X is a picture of column with all the parts labeled. The “Plinthus” is the solid support at the bottom of the column.   In architecture it is clear that the word means the right prism (rectangular solid) used as a support for at column.

In room decoration a plinth is the base along a wall that prevents chairs from hitting the wall.  An early description of the process of creating a plinth for a room is found in the article, Agricultural architecture and engineering. No. ix by R. S. Hunt page 14 in Journal of Agriculture,  July 1853 (Google books:   Today one can go to Ikea or Home Depot and purchase material for block plinths to be used as molding or plinth that can used as a support for a post or column.

None of these uses of the word fit what “plinth” means for museum exhibits.  I looked in a catalog for library and museum supplies.  A plinth is a rectangular solid (right prism) that supports museum display cases.   A plinth could also be used inside a display case to hold the item on display.  The supplier uses “plinth” as a shape to describe the base of a display case.


“Fabric deck and back panel; glass shelves; archival materials; fluorescent light hood; 6" plinth base”

It is interesting that most of the companies that sell plinths for museums are in Great Britain. Perhaps in the US  most people just use other words such as “base,” “pedestal, “ or “support?” I know what a "plinth" is but I am not sure if the word is more British than American usage.  Perhaps you should ask your colleagues if they can use "plinth" in a sentence?

6/29/2014   Addendum

Yesterday I had a guest from London join us for lunch.  I asked him if he ever heard of the word, "plinth" and did he think it was a British word.  He said that he heard of the word because in Trafalgar Square in central London is a group of three statues.  The fourth plinth was supposed to hold a statue of William IV, but they ran out of money.  For 150 years the fate of the empty plinth was debated.  In 1999 it was decided that it would be used for the temporary display of contemporary art.

6/30/2014  Comment received.  Included with permission.

A new Brit/American usage difference to add to my list. Yes, "plinth" for Brits is the normal word for the thing you stick a statue on. I do believe we use the expression "to put s.o. on a pedestal", although you would have to check with somebody whose British English is less contaminated than mine!

 John Williams
Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe
Bologna, Italy

Friday, June 6, 2014

What is a Database?

One would think that the word “database” is an easy, straight forward word that as a native English speaker would not need an explanation. It is not an easy word to explain.  If I hold up an object to a native speaker, they should be able to tell me what it is.  I hold up the object below and a child in France would say it is a “livre;” a German would say, “Buch;” a Latin speaker “liber;” a Hebrew speaker “sefer.”  However, to a Yiddish speaker what it is called depends on the content. The answer could be, “buch” or “sefer.”

Suppose a reader came into the library and wanted a book.  The library has 1000’s of books.  You would ask him/her to be more precise.  When you find a book in the catalog the call number will tell you where to find it. The reader starts with a book describing the kind of object wanted and eventually finds the precise items needed. A similar thought process could help a hungry person find food in a grocery store. 

Abstract concepts are harder to define.  The meaning of “data” is moving target.  One person’s data is the basis for another person’s information.  One “datum[1]” is the smallest unit that represents objects, events, or entitles that have meaning in the user’s universe. The last part of this definition is where the context and flexibility make the exact definition imprecise.  In the computer language 0’s and 1’s are bits and are used for bytes.  Each byte represents a letter of the alphabet. Letters make words; words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, and so forth.  A small example of a database is a sentence.  The characters (data) are organized into words and related to give meaning. A database is an organized collection of data. The database may be on paper, electronic or stored in any other media one could imagine.  A directory, an encyclopedia, or a card catalog may be considered databases.

In March a librarian asked about the difference between updating a database and updating a website.  At first I was going to dismiss the question as being too naïve for me to bother, but then I read an article by Denis Pombriant in CRM Magazine [2] “Data versus knowledge”  Pombriant talks about using data as a way to gain knowledge.  This flow of knowledge is a concept that I have long talked about.   He talks about data points that are not quantitative.   For example shoes can have size, color, style but also shipping records, sales records, etc.  Taken with the data from other sales, the business can gain the knowledge to make informed business decisions. Knowledge is a property of the human mind, but information and data are in constant motion.  He concludes that one must cultivate (in other words “organize”) data in order to turn it into information. 

If we follow this line of reasoning, data is the source that when it is once organized and stored may become information.  There is no definition of data that can fit every situation. 

Databases by their very nature are meant to by dynamic and always changing.  Paper databases, of course, change a lot slower than electronic databases. 

Returning to the original question about the difference between updating a website and updating a website, one has to figure out the type of entity one is dealing with. There are two kinds of web pages – dynamic and static.  Dynamic web pages are formed with data from many sources.  Every time one visits the site, it is different.  A dynamic database could be a portal to more information or display information based on a search of a database.  For example a web based email program will display the mail with the featured offered by the programmers.  The display changes based on messages that come and go.  A library catalog or a retail business site are examples or web sites that search databases.  A static page is coded by the creator and will display the same way until the creator changes it.

Updating a database is independent of the display of data on the screen.  The data could be displayed on multiple interfaces.  Many libraries have multiple search options for their catalogs.  For a static page, only an authorized user may update it.

[1] Just a reminder -- “data” is from Latin and is plural.  The singular is “dataum.”  However, in common usage “data” is used as singular noun.

[2] CRM means customer relations management.  This is publication aimed at helping business becoming more tuned in to the needs of customers.  Full citation: Pombriant, Denis.  “Data versus knowledge: gaining insight from your data means rethinking its definition.”  CRM Magazine April 2014. Online: