Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More on copyright law

Via Conversational Reading:
Copyright was born in the 16th century and, for the first couple of centuries of its existence, was a form of censorship. With the creation of the Stationers' Company in 1556, printers had to register their books, in order to make it easier for the monarchy to censor their "heresy, sedition and treason ... whereby not only God is dishonoured, but also an encouragement is given to disobey lawful princes and governors". It was a straightforward means of control: print something we don't like and you'll be punished, often by means such as having your nose slit or ears cut off. (Somewhere, a record company executive is reading those words and thinking, if only ... ) These laws had nothing to do with the needs of writers or the public, and everything to do with state control.

When the first real copyright law came, it was by accident. The laws controlling printing lapsed in 1694, and for the next 16 years a form of anarchy reigned: anyone could print anything. The effect for publishers was disastrous; they came to realise how important their monopoly was, and in turn how important it was to have a means of not just censoring the press, but controlling who owned what - in short, an idea of copyright. Out of that was born the copyright act of 1710, or, as it was significantly called, "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning". The act said that:

Whereas printers, booksellers, and other persons have of late frequently taken the liberty of printing, reprinting, and publishing, or causing to be printed, reprinted, and published, books and other writings, without the consent of the authors or proprietors of such books and writings, to their very great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families: for preventing therefore such practices for the future, and for the encouragement of learned men to compose and write useful books ...

It created a copyright term of 21 years, after which the rights would revert to the author. And there you have it: the world's first system of copyright. As those words make clear, the act was explicitly based on one idea: that it was in the public interest to create an intellectually fruitful culture, and that the way to do that was to make it possible for writers to earn money from their work.

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