To the author/artist whose copyrighted works provide his/her livelihood?
To the publisher whose copyrighted publications, in turn, provide HIS/HER livelihood?
To the student/researcher who needs the information/material to complete his/her homework assignments/research?
To the vendor who wants to provide books/magazine & newspaper articles electronically over the Web?
Fair use, in terms of copyright law, means that students/researchers can make reproductions of copyrighted works for their own use or for classroom use. NOT for sale. OK, so far so good.
Books don't go out of print anymore (see Lightning Source, its older cousin Books On Demand, and the Publication Rights Clearinghouse). Magazine & newspaper articles have found new life in online vendors such as Uncover or InfoTrac (which both signs license agreements directly with publishers for the use of the work and has site license agreements with libraries such as the Harris County Public Library.)
Site licenses ensure that only computers on library property can access the Texas State Electronic Library Web site databases, for example. (Thus students and researchers need only physically come to the library to do their work.) Another way to control access has been chosen by Houston Public Library (for example). HPL requires its library card holders to enter their library barcode number to access its licensed databases.
Publishers can also choose to issue their publications in the public document format (.pdf). The advantage here is that the publisher is guaranteed that anyone using his/her publication is seeing it EXACTLY as the publisher intended. Original graphics, tables, text, the works. Also, other webmasters cannot link to a portion of the work (such as a neat graphic such as a .gif) because the work is not in HTML. Nor can someone copy portions to include in his/her work and then try to pass the work off as his/her own. (Remember plagiarism?)(One can, however, request formal permission to use .gifs found on regular, HTML Web pages.)
Authors have been dealing with hardback & paperback book rights, movie rights, TV rights, etc. for some time. Now they must come to terms with electronic (Web, CD-ROM, etc.) rights.
Enter the Publication Rights Clearinghouse (Nat.Writers Union AFL-CIO) and the Instant Copyright & Reprint Clearinghouse (ICRC).
How long does copyright last? Longer than it used to. It used to last 75 years. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 extended it to 95 years. Regarding other recent copyright legislation, see also the No Electronic Theft Act of 1997, Digital Copyright Clarification and Technology Education Act of 1997. and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998.
On the Web, everybody is a publisher. So it behooves everyone to try to work together for a fair solution to this "Who owns information?" problem. After all, fair IS fair.