Sometime towards the middle of June 2000, on the StudioB Computer Book Publishing mailing list, Bruce Epstein wrote:
I see the day when a bookseller decides that the way to compete is to acquire unique content and not sell it to other booksellers, perhaps.
The feeling of historical deja vu generated by this sentence is too great to ignore.
English language copyrights derive from Royal patent grants. These grants offered certain people (mostly printers and booksellers) monopoly rights to publish books and pamphlets and the like.
The original purpose of these grants wasn’t to protect an author’s or even a publisher’s right to the material. Rather it was to generate tax revenue and to make it easy for central authority to control what was and was not published.
The system worked quite well (for booksellers, at least) for more than two-hundred years. It started to fall apart, however, when the 1707 Act of Union made the informal joining of England and Scotland (they’d long shared a monarch) into the formal United Kingdom of Great Britain.
Suddenly Edinburgh and Glasgow booksellers were supposed to accept the monopoly publishing rights of the London Stationers’ Company (which had achieved this monopoly in the 1500s under the regulatory authority of the Court of the Star Chamber). The Scottish booksellers refused to give up their patent grants, despite the dissolution of the Scottish parliament, and over the next three years the British House of Lords was regularly concerned with this problem. The end result was the Statute of Queen Anne, which was signed into English law in 1710.
(BTW, Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 – 1714, had little input into the statute. Much of her energy were devoted to her husband, George, Prince of Denmark. What time she had left was rather pre-occupied with the War of Spanish Succession, which the English won against the French, the struggles between the reformist Whigs and the royalist Tories in the parliament and the ongoing concern with succession in Scotland and England. She didn’t do much in the way of pushing the furniture style which bears her name either.)
This remarkable Statute created the modern copyright system, recognising for the first time that authors should be the primary beneficiary of the monopoly rights granted by a copyright. The other important thing the Statute of Queen Anne did was to make copyright a limited monopoly right. Prior to 1710, booksellers could and did hand down royal grants of copyright to their sons. Old Tom’s Almanac, for example, made several generations of English booksellers a very good living. In 1710 monopoly copyrights were, for the first time, limited to a fixed period (28 years in the original statute), after which a work passed into the Public Domain.
I’m certain Bruce Epstein wasn’t advocating a return to the pre-1710 state of things but encouraging booksellers to return to the old practice may not be such a good idea, at least from the creator’s point-of-view.
For what it’s worth, I think the British Lords of 1710 got it right and we’d do well to remember their reasons for acting as they did.
First, they didn’t consider copyright some inalienable civil or human right. Copyright is a government-granted monopoly right designed to encourage people to produce creative works. The Law Lords saw these works as being in the public good. They believed offering a form of monopoly protection to creators would ensure more and better works would appear. (They believed rightly as it turned out: post the Statute of Queen Anne saw one of the great flowerings of literature in Britain.)
Second, they strictly limited the life of this monopoly right. Since the right was granted primarily because it was seen that more and better creative works would be a public benefit, it followed that eventually the public should have access to that benefit directly. The original 28 year life of a granted copyright has been extended several times (most recently in the US by the so-called Sonny Bono law which extends copyright out 75 years after the copyright owner’s death) but it is still a limited right.
It worries me that people have begun to use language reminiscent of the civil rights movement when describing copyrights. It mostly comes from people high up in organisations like the RIAA and various Hollywood studios but I’ve seen similar language used on the StudioB list and other writing-related lists.
Copyright isn’t on a par with the right to life, liberty, fraternity and equality before the law. It’s a privilege extended to us by our fellow citizens because they recognise the value they get out of our efforts. Let’s not forget writers (and all artists) are in the service industry. If we start telling people they should feel privileged that we deign to offer our masterpieces for their purchase and edification they will — quite rightly — tell us all to f#$& off and die.