Intelligent agents, sophisticated computer programs that act on behalf of their users and adjust themselves to users’ behaviors and preferences, may answer the prayers of people who are increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available to them on the Internet. [2] Instead of spending frustrating hours “surfing the ‘Net” in search of elusive information, users may soon employ intelligent software agents that gather information efficiently and without need for further human assistance, thereby freeing the user to spend time on more productive, or more leisurely, activities. [3] Still in its infancy, agent software “launches” itself into a computer system, a local-area-network, or the Internet, in order to perform a task or set of tasks requested by the user, such as retrieving information on a particular company or purchasing plane tickets at the lowest price. [4] If sufficiently sophisticated, intelligent agents may be able to “negotiate” with software agents resident in other computer systems, to coordinate, for example, a teleconference between two executives which does not conflict with the schedule of either person. [5]

 

Although agent technology is neither ubiquitous nor yet fully realized, it is nearly certain to play a major role in the way consumers and businesspeople deal with information in the years to come. [6] Indeed, agent software may cause people to rethink their entire approach to receiving information, creating distinctions between mere data and true information. [7] Don Norman, a research fellow at Apple Computer Inc., goes even further, arguing that we do not want data or information – we want knowledge. [8] Norman and others believe that intelligent agents will perform the tedious, time-intensive tasks of data collection and information retrieval, ultimately providing the user with readily-applicable knowledge and perhaps rendering obsolete presently “state-of-the-art” search paradigms, such as the unwieldy World Wide Web. [9]

 

Not surprisingly, any technology that promises to change fundamentally the way information is gathered will raise the eyebrows of the artistically or intellectually creative individuals (and their lawyers) who possess legally granted ownership rights in expressions of this information. [10] To be specific, intelligent agents may retrieve for users, via the Internet, documents, images, video or sound files that are the copyrighted material of another, thus subjecting the user, and/or the user’s employer, to potential legal liability. [11] This seemingly inevitable clash between copyright holders and the users of the Internet, compounded by the injection of intelligent agent technology, presents several novel copyright issues.

 

The core issue, and the issue in which the federal government, industry, academia, and individual computer users are all keenly interested at present, is when, or perhaps whether, the viewing, retrieval, transmission, or transfer of copyrighted files, data or images by users of the Internet constitutes copyright infringement. [12] This issue, until definitively resolved by the courts or legislature, will almost surely lie at the crux of numerous Internet-related copyright lawsuits that will be filed in the months and years to come. [13] Therefore, this paper must, at the outset, explore in depth copyright protection for files on the Internet.

 

Only after addressing this fundamental issue can we delve into our more creative investigation; that is, whether the retrieval of copyrighted computer files via the Internet by an intelligent software agent can be considered infringement by its owner, operator or initiator. Several ancillary issues will also be explored. For example, would the user’s employer, whether a corporation or academic institution, also be exposed to liability for copyright violations, under theories of contributory or vicarious liability? Additionally, would the company who designed, programmed, or owns the copyright to the source and object code for the intelligent agent software face potential liability when its software agents infringe upon copyrights?

 

Michael B. Sapherstein*