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U.S. copyright law[]


The public display right is extremely significant in the context of the Internet. To display a work means to "show a copy of it, either directly or by means of a . . . television image, or any other device or process . . . ."[1] . The public display right is limited to literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.

The complex analyses to determine whether a particular transmission might amount to a "distribution" or a "performance" are rarely necessary in this context. The definition of "display" clearly encompasses, for instance, the actions of the defendant BBS operator in Playboy Enterprises, Inc. v. Frena.[2]

Thus, when an Internet user visually "browses" through copies of works in any medium (but not through a list of titles or other "menus" that are not copies of the works), a public display of at least a portion of the browsed work occurs. A display is "public" on the same terms as a performance is "public"; therefore, many online uses would appear to fall within the law's current comprehension of "public display."[3] Whether such acts would be an infringement would be determined by separate infringement analyses.


  1. 17 U.S.C. §101.
  2. 839 F. Supp. 1552 (M.D. Fla. 1993)(full-text).
  3. The copyright law's legislative history, describing the introduction of the display right, distinguishes displays "on a screen or tube" from reproductions. This language, written before the advent of the personal computer, applies easily to displays with which Congress was familiar in 1976 (those rendered by broadcast television receivers), but is inapplicable to digital "browsing" where the law itself clearly — without resort to explanatory congressional language — defines such acts as implicating the display and reproduction rights.