A Brief History of Copyright
The World Public Library Blog Newsletter
Volume 1, Number 9
Monday, June 20, 2011
Published Twice Weekly
by Michael S. Hart
Founder, Project Gutenberg,
Inventor of eBooks
A Brief History of Copyright (Part 1)
(Continuing our ongoing series on copyright) (to create a foundation for our future articles)
Copyright was created in response to The Gutenberg Press, and this was by "The Stationers," from whom we get words for what we write on and the desks we use to write on, etc.
The Stationers got their name from their "Stations," around a big city where people could go to have things written down in an age when the literacy was intentionally kept at about 1%.
Those 1% we pretty much all members of the nobility, wealthy, or they were the scribes and monks. Traditionally, a village was supposed to have at least one person who could read, just so the rulers could send someone through to nail up a notice, and then could presume that villager could read it to others, and then the town crier could pass on the news.
However, The Gutenberg Press literally shook many established powers right to their foundations, including The Church.
I won't go into this in any detail here, but the truth is you probably never would have heard of Martin Luther if not for a local Gutenberg Press [the Kinko's du jour] where "95 Theses"
was copied and send far beyond his originals.
In addition, if you recall, Gutenberg's most famous published work was The Bible, which allowed people to read themselves a lot of what they had previously depended on Churchmen for and to notice more and more how distorted The Church readings had been in response to different Popes' biases, political events and so forth. This was a much bigger thing that one might be able to imagine since our history books don't do it justice-- not even slightly--but just imagine a Wikileaks of the day.
Such a light was not to be easily dimmed as The Bible quotes:
Neither do men light a candle,
and put it under a bushel,
but on a candlestick;
and it giveth light unto
all that are in the house.
And he said unto them,
Is a candle brought
to be put under a bushel,
or under a bed? and not to
be set on a candlestick?
No man, when he hath lighted a candle,
covereth it with a vessel,
or putteth it under a bed;
but setteth it on a candlestick, that
they which enter in may see the light.
No man, when he hath lighted a candle,
putteth it in a secret place,
neither under a bushel,
but on a candlestick,
that they which come in
may see the light.
However, after 250 years of unceasing effort "The Stationers"
[originally The Stationers Guild then The Stationers Company] finally found a monarch who was so weak that they convinced a newly crowned Queen Anne [following Elizabeth I and Henry VII and the like] that she was unlike to remain Queen unless they were given power to censor all those writing against her, and along with that, the power to censor everyone and everything, which was basically the first copyright law known under name:
"The Statute of Anne"
This is a very short document, something you could read in 10 minutes, and it is very obviously written mostly in publisher interests, not the Queen's, nor the public's interest, with a very short last page added on for the authors' interests as a protection against it being vetoed yet again after 250 years.
This took place just about exactly 300 years ago in 1710, and later on in the 1700's the terms of 14 years with a 14 years'
renewal possible adopted by both the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and then many others followed.
The whole idea of 14 years was that most books would be quote "out of print," as we say today after 14 years and the author would have to write something new to keep the pot boiling and hence came the term for "potboilers" for writing extra books.
Another piece of logic for 14 years was that authors expected to live not much past the age of 50 back in those days, so it was an added incentive for them to write one more bestseller, not just potboilers, if they wanted to live in comfort in the remaining years of their lives.
However, today they seem to think just the opposite, that the authors have more incentives to write bestsellers NOW if they know their heirs will get the millions for generations.
Personally, I find it difficult to think that extending today for longer and longer copyrights could motivate any of author types such as Hemingway, Faulkner, Churchill, Milne, Barrie-- or any of the others of those eras, as they are all dead...!
Here is a very brief list of the major copyright laws we live under in The United States, and, I should add that the US has applied economic pressures so great, that it can only be said to actually be "economic warfare," to insist other countries, as many as we can manage to force, also extend copyrights.
1710 The Statute of Anne passed, stifles The Gutenberg Press
1790 US Copyright starts with terms of 14 years + 14 renewal
1830 US Patent issued for first high speed steam power press
1831 US Copyright Act of 1831 stifles the new steam presses 1900~ High speed electric presses make books yet even cheaper
1909 US Copyright Act of 1909 stifles those electric presses 1970~ Xerox machine brings republishing to the common masses
1976 US Copyright Act of 1976 stifles common use of Xeroxing 1995~ Internet and WWW allow worldwide common republishing
1998 US Copyright Act of 1998 stifles Internet republishing.
2016 Expect a new US Copyright Act right around this time.
However, remember, it's an election year, so they might sneak it in earlier or later to avoid the publicity.
How did they avoid the publicity last time?
Some think the major reason The Republicans impeached Clinton without any hope of success was a smokescreen to hide the new copyright bill being passed, behind closed doors, in the same
24 hours as the impeachment took place.
If the current copyright laws and court decisions stand it is very likely that copyright is now permanent in the US and may be headed that direction in other countries.
End of Part 1 of A Brief History of Copyright
Preview of next in the series:
As you can see, even from the brief history listed above, the whole idea of our modern copyright system comes from the fear of new technology by those who controlled the old technology, and who want to insure they also control the new technologies even if they didn't invent them and hardly understand them.