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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Lively Excursion Into the Complexities of Copyright Law : COPYRIGHT’S HIGHWAY: From Gutenberg to the Celestial Jukebox <i> by Paul Goldstein</i> . Hill and Wang, $21, 243 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Copyright was once called “the metaphysics of the law” by a bemused judge precisely because it seeks to answer questions that are almost ineffable: Who, after all, owns an idea, a plot, a character, an image or a phrase? “This case,” wrote a Supreme Court justice in another particularly bedeviling copyright decision, “calls not for the judgment of Solomon but for the dexterity of Houdini.”

To his credit, copyright expert Paul Goldstein displays both Solomonic wisdom and Houdini-esque agility in “Copyright’s Highway,” a lively excursion into the convoluted labyrinth of copyright law.

“Copyright’s Highway” reaches as far back as the Roman poet Martial, who first articulated the notion of plagiarism (or “kidnaping”), but Goldstein makes it clear that the real momentum in copyright law began to build only with the invention of the printing press. Starting with the Statute of Anne in 1706--and continuing, quite literally, in cases, statutes and treaties that show up in today’s headlines--copyright has struggled to make sense of every new technology that has come along, ranging from player pianos to photocopiers to microprocessors.

“Copyright,” as Goldstein puts it, “was technology’s child from the start.”

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His case studies are drawn from some of the most familiar and memorable icons of Western popular culture, including Noah Webster’s famous dictionary, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and 2 Live Crew’s rap parody of “Oh, Pretty Woman.” At each crucial moment, Goldstein points out how the law was stretched--or stitched together out of whole cloth--to keep up with the furious pace of art and invention.

Webster, for example, was forced to petition each of the 13 states to grant copyright protection to the first edition of his dictionary, because the United States did not recognize copyright on a national basis until the ratification of the Constitution. Even then, Congress and the courts only reluctantly extended copyright to new media and new markets.

Thus, for example, Stowe was unable to prevent a German publisher from issuing an edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” because the copyright law then protected only the “precise words” of the original work and not the right to translate those words into another language.

“I have seen a literal translation of (Robert) Burns’ poetry into French prose,” wrote one judge, “but to call it a copy of the original would be as ridiculous as the translation itself.”

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Many of the major copyright battles of the 20th Century, as Goldstein points out, were fought with very mixed results by copyright owners whose profits were threatened by competing technologies. The author of “Ben Hur” sought to extend his rights under copyright to the making of a movie based on his book--and won. An alliance of movie studios sought to prevent consumers from making their own copies of television programs and motion pictures on videocassette recorders--and lost.

Goldstein, a professor at Stanford Law School and an eminent authority on copyright, brings a technician’s mastery of the inner workings of the law to “The Celestial Jukebox.” But he also writes with clarity, lucidity and a wry sense of humor about a subject whose complexities can be daunting.

Above all, Goldstein always reminds us what is really at stake in the sometimes lofty debate over copyright law. For example, the controversy over colorization of old movies, which focused on a French court’s attempt to prevent Ted Turner from tampering with “The Asphalt Jungle,” was framed in terms of an artist’s “moral right” to protect the integrity of her artwork. But Goldstein is ever the clear-eyed pragmatist, and he is always equally concerned with the dollar-and-cents impact of copyright law.

“At bottom,” Goldstein insists, “the problem is that, in many instances in intellectual, literary, and educational life, information and entertainment are costly to produce but cheap to distribute.”

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The most recent and most pressing example of Goldstein’s rule of thumb is the so-called Information Superhighway, where data gathered at great cost and works of authorship created with great effort are made freely accessible to consumers who may pay little or nothing at all for the opportunity to use them.

The digitalization of data, according to Goldstein, is a “transforming scientific revolution” that poses the greatest challenge to copyright law. He imagines what he calls “the celestial jukebox,” a source of entertainment and information that will make a vast library of copyrighted works readily available in the privacy of one’s home by satellite or fiber optics, and he wonders what impact it will have on the “microeconomics” of mass media.

But Goldstein is an optimist at heart, and everything he has shown us in “The Celestial Jukebox” supports his argument that law, technology and the marketplace will sort out the latest wrinkle in the convoluted fabric of copyright. The Information Revolution will have its winners and losers, he suggests, but copyright will go on.

“The digital future,” Goldstein concludes, “is the next, and perhaps ultimate, phase in copyright’s long trajectory.”

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