The Surprising Origin Of Copyright Law, And How It Came From Censorship

While today, we think of copyright law as a way to protect the property of creators, English copyright law was actually based on systems designed to enable censorship and allow the government to control print works. This cartoon takes you through a quick history of printing and copyright.


This is the third episode of the web series Copy-Me, which explains intellectual property concepts through animated videos. You can check out the sources for this episode and more information at the Copy-Me website.

[via Boing Boing]

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Contrary to the film's misrepresentation that "authors have never risen in revolt to demand rights for their copied works," the modern international copyright regime established by the Berne Convention arose from the intense efforts of Victor Hugo and other 19th Century authors who faced rampant bootlegging of their works (especially, funnily enough, in the United States, whose notoriety for unlicensed copying in those days was much like China's today, notwithstanding the fact that the gentleman authors and publishers who founded the U.S. were concerned enough about authors' and publishers' rights to enshrine them in Article I of the Constitution).

While it's true that many of the early licensing and monopoly laws, particularly in continental Europe, were part of a censorship regime, the more complex truth of the thing is that the attitudes and expectations of creative people changed from the 16th to 19th Centuries, and so did the economics of creativity and the legal frameworks built around creativity and copying.

With regard to the written word, it's worth bearing in mind that the printing press didn't merely make it possible to copy works of art in a way that wasn't possible when talking about painting or sculpture: the printing press made literacy as we now take it for granted possible. Prior to the press, "reading" was largely a social activity, one in which authors read or recited their work to audiences composed of individuals who may or may not have had the ability to visually comprehend—i.e. read—a manuscript, and authors' works were largely composed with performance in mind. Written works—handwritten works—were largely copies of copies and until at least the 15th or 16th Century were rarely written in vernacular languages like Spanish, French and English (largely being written in Latin or occasionally Greek). In that cultural regime, of course authors didn't share contemporary concerns about their publication rights: an author like Chaucer (in the 14th Century) was provided with a pension and perqs to appear before the court (primarily and initially of Edward III in Chaucer's case) as an oral storyteller, even if he drafted the work in manuscript and perhaps read from or referred to the written version when performing.

The printing press, then, didn't fulfill a market for books, it created one. Along with the press comes the creation of works written in the vernacular and the standardization of written vernacular—agreed-upon spellings of words and agreed-upon grammatical usages as opposed to people simply speaking the way they do, and the possibility that an individual who can read this vernacular may obtain a mass-produced book and go home and read it by him or herself (although reading aloud does remain something of a social activity for families up until at least the end of the 19th Century). This is important because pretending that medieval and early Renaissance authors simply didn't care if their works were mass-produced without their control and with no direct benefit to them is a bit like adding that they were also indifferent to whether Hollywood faithfully adapted those books for the screen—the problem was beyond their ken.

Which wasn't the case by the time of Dickens. Dickens wasn't particularly pleased that his words had simply found a wider audience: he was understandably furious that the exclusive contracts he tried to enter into with American publishers were meaningless and unprofitable because his works were widely bootlegged and unlicensed editions saturated the market. (Being a smart guy, he invented the book tour and charged people lots of money to come hear him do dramatic readings. Something some modern authors might be able to make work, but certainly not all.) Perhaps Dickens would have been less angry if he'd had a wealthy patron getting exclusive rights to read/hear his works back at home, but the Renaissance patronage system collapsed... well, at the end of the Renaissance, basically.

Look, modern copyright law is broken. Terms of copyright are overly long and the public domain (which is a fountain from which culture springs) is in danger. But actively misrepresenting the purpose of modern copyright law by comparing it to archaic forms of state privilege and the issuance of monopolies for the use of a novel technology in an era when arts, economies and governments all functioned in fundamentally different ways from today is bogus andmisinforms the conversation. It's likely we're in a transitional phase thanks to the Internet as people were in the 15th Century thanks to the Gutenberg press, and that the economics of how writers obtain food and shelter will (must) change as profoundly in the coming years as they did over the course of the years in which publishing was originally invented. But is it too much to ask we have a little less propaganda from the partisans and a little more practical discussion of how we make things work so we can have nice things?