Friday, June 1, 2007

How did we get here? The birth of copyright

After a horrendous weekend of moving (let's face it, no matter how excited you are to live in a new place, the lugging of boxes and furniture from one place to another is never fun), I'm finally back in gear and back into the swing of all things academic.

I've been reading about the evolution of copyright, and following is a brief summary and my thoughts.

So when and where did copyright come from? It began over 500 years ago with Gutenberg's invention in 1440 of a moveable type press. Before this invention, copying printed works was a royal pain in the behind-or arm. Books were copied one at a time by hand by monks or other scribes. Not exactly an efficient system, and perhaps the cuase of the first cases of carpal tunnel syndrome? But after the printing press was invented, copies could be made much more quickly and efficiently than before, and so copies of Ye Olde Manuscripte were suddenly available to a much wider audience.

But with this glorious invention came a whole new slew of problems for authors. Previous to the printing press, it was very difficult for copies of a book to be made, so authors had no real need for protection against unauthorized copies. Hell, considering how hard it was to produce even one copy of the book, I would have jumped for joy if a monk somewhere had actually wanted to copy my book, so that then I might have a few more readers and two copies in existence instead of just one. After the printing press made multiple copies of any given work the norm, however, the need to protect an author's right to duplicate his or her work came into play.

Authors weren't immediately protected though. Initially, the rights to publish a book went to the printer who first printed the work and not to the author, meaning that if Ye Olde Manuscripte Printer was the first to publish Ye Olde Manuscripte, Ye Olde Manuscripte Printer had the right to publish Ye Olde Manuscripte for as long as they wished and the author had no say. Pretty lousy deal for authors. In the 1550s in England, the Stationers Company was chartered by royal decree to control book printing and distribution. This arrangement benefitted the Crown because they had given publishers the power to control content and act as censors or what would and would not be published. Publishing soon turned into a huge monopoly (and you thought corporatization was a modern-day problem); the original press to publish a book was protected against piracy and authors had no say. To make it even worse for would-be authors, the poor schmucks had to petition to even have their books printed for a set period of time.

Naturally this led to discontent amongst authors, and in 1694 Parliament allowed the Stationers' Licensing Act to expire. After this came the Statute of Anne in 1710, which offered authors 28 years of copyright protection. As a part of registration for copyright protection, authors had to donate 9 copies of each of their published books to major libraries in England and the UK. Clever way to build a library.


The newly formed United States was tinkering around with its Constitution and established copyright as a way to protect the authors whose works would in turn help contribute knowledge to society. A subsequent law, passed in 1790 by George Washington, allowed authors to hold copyright for 28 years and required 1 copy of the published work to be deposited with the local district court clerk and 1 copy delivered to the secretary of state-who at the time was Thomas Jefferson. The American law borrowed from the British one, so despite the fact that the Americans no longer considered the British good enough to rule over them, they still considered their laws good enough to copy off of. (An interesting aside to ponder at a later date: could the Brits have copyrighted their law, thereby rendering the Americans unable to copy it? Don't know the answer but it is interesting to think that laws on copyright were being copied.)

It's interesting to note that even though the First Amendment protected free speech and freedom of the press, copyright was still seen as worthy of protection. The coexistence of the First Amendment and copyright law proved that even though lawmakers believed publishers should be able to print whatever they wanted, the authors who created the words still had a right to be protected from unauthorized copies that would prevent them from profiting from their work.

So, in essence, copyright law evolved from the publishing monopoly that censored and exploited authors in England. Lawmakers realized that authors would have no incentive to create new works that would enhance society unless they were protected from exploitation, and thus copyright laws were established. Copyright protection became an incentive for authors to write; for the most part, authors could not be paid to create, so copyright protection became like the currency authors were given in place of money. Sounds suspiciously a lot like the "psychic currency" we publishing students are told we'll be getting paid in rather than dollars once we get jobs in the biz.

1 comment:

Phantom City said...


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