Where did copyright come from? Given its curious nature, it is not readily apparent from whence it
came. Unlike criminal justice,
which has a very intuitive purpose and can be traced back through the mists of
time to the natural law of pre-history, copyright appears to be a
counter-intuitive artifact of medieval political wrangling and propaganda
Although we ultimately have Johannes Gutenberg and
his moveable type to thank for the creation of copyright, the precursor of
copyright law as we know it first appeared in Britain
in the fifteenth century. The
issue of copyright arose in response to Gutenberg’s disruptive technology
infiltrating the British Isles. The printing press represented a supreme threat to the clergy’s monopoly
on idea dissemination; moveable type was the fifteenth century version of
Napster. The technology that enabled the ability to copy and mass-produce books
created an immediate need for its own subjugation.
The lever for this subjugation was the Licensing
Act. Under its auspices, and
purporting to control the production of religious materials, the British
government granted the exclusive right to publish printed works to the
Stationer’s Company in 1534. The
Stationer’s Company, in exchange for its monopoly, was obliged to seek
permission from the Crown before
it printed anything. The
Stationer’s Company was the sixteenth century version of Fox News. As a result,
the Crown conveniently only had to keep on eye on one media outlet to dampen
dissent and attenuate propaganda.
Sir Roger L'Estrange (his real name), a17th
century version of Dr. Strangelove, engineered
the passage of several acts governing printing in 1663. The main thrust of
these acts were to effect a mechanism whereby an author’s name would be
attached to his creation. This was
not so much to ensure that the author got his due credit, so much as to enable
the authorities to hunt down and eviscerate any dissident author that dared
print without a license.
As a result, the concept of authorship arose
because in the 17th century authors were treated like sex offenders
or terrorists, required to register with the authorities so that they could be
rounded up if their works were deemed subversive or printed without license.
Licensing Act, and the Stationer’s monopoly, was set to expire in 1694.
The Stationer’s Company sent their lobbyists to Parliament to cut a deal
on an extension, but the political winds were shifting.
In 1688 there was a "Glorious Revolution", during which some guy name
Titus Oates was repeatedly whipped, and the end result was that there was a new
sheriff in town.Dr. Strangelove
was imprisoned, his views on intellectual property were viewed with suspicion,
and the Licensing Act was allowed to expire.
The ultimate dig to the Stationer’s Company came soon
thereafter when Parliament passed the Statute of Anne in 1710. Turning the Licensing Act on its head, the Statute of Anne took the
exclusive rights from the Stationer’s Company and gave them to the authors.
The Statute gave authors the exclusive right to print a book
for 14 years, which was renewable for another 14 years if the author was still
alive. Thus was born the modern
concept of "authorship", that being a creator worthy of recompense, as opposed
to a potential dissident worthy of evisceration.