Where did Copyright come from? - History

Medieval Napster

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 control.

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.

Dr. Strangelove

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. 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), a 17th 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.

Glorious Revolution

The 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.