Copyright History for Dummies

“Author” is not a stable term, and the idea of authorship as we now know it has developed over a very long time. There are a lot of things to consider when defining authorship, and a good place to start in crafting your definition is by taking a look at the book history circuits I wrote about a while ago. In short, though, authorship really breaks down to a bunch of legal agreements. Right now authorship is standardized and government-regulated but it wasn’t always that way. Let me take you back to when copyright (and, subsequently, authorship) wasn’t so standardized.

In the time of manuscripts, copyright wasn’t much of an issue because production was so small-scale. As production capabilities increased with the spread of the printing press, however, people began to see the need for some sort of copyright law. During printing’s infancy, the first person to publish a text held the text’s copyright. Authors were paid lump sums for their manuscripts, and negotiations for royalties were rarely made, even if the book became a bestseller. Taking advantage of this setup, some cheeky authors sold their manuscripts to more than one printer to get paid two fees. Then, whoever published first got the copyright. Needless to say this did not make for very happy printers, who got tricked out of sales revenue. Some printers even sent spies to work in other offices and to steal any good manuscripts that came along.

Let’s be clear here: when I refer to copyright, I don’t necessarily mean plagiarism. Sure, one can break copyright laws by plagiarizing, but plagiarism and copyright are not interchangeable terms. Copyright is a legal thing, with legal consequences. Plagiarism is a moral – an ethical – thing, with moral consequences. You go to academic hell if you plagiarize. I look down on you if you plagiarize. Go home, think up your own thoughts, and then come back and talk to me. A copyright violation, though, is more along the lines of: you’re printing my product and now I’m not making money and I’ve got a family to feed and I’m going to take you to court and sue you. I mean, you need that money if you’re in the printing business. There’s a lot you have to pay for. Presses, typefaces, employees… you need that revenue if you want to keep your printing ship afloat.

Nevertheless, as the printing press spread more and more people were printing the same product, thereby driving prices down. Just like people go to Walmart nowadays to get the lowest prices, people in Renaissance Europe would compare prices to get the biggest bang for their buck. Because of this extreme competition, a lot of book production endeavours failed. Cue the London Stationers’ Company. The Company was a guild of all of the master printers of London, who decided to get together and talk shop in attempts to prevent their print shops from failing. The master printers decided that, through gentlemen’s agreements (usually oral as opposed to written), they wouldn’t screw each other over. This isn’t to say that the screwing didn’t happen – it did. Some gentlemen got majorly, majorly screwed. But, for the most part, this deal seemed to work pretty well.

Eventually the Stationers’ Company got so big and powerful that it controlled the growth of the printing industry. It cooperated with the government, and had the crown’s blessing to monitor – read: censor – texts. And, through the Stationers’ Register, it issued its members early copyrights. Copyright guarantees one person the exclusive right to a text. The Stationers’ Company granted copyrights in perpetuity, meaning that one person had the rights to a text forever. Like, forever forever. Copyrights were given as inheritances to children. Weddings were arranged to connect affluent copyright-owning families. In some cases, the Stationers’ Company sent out big mafia men to show people who was really in charge, and to punish those who disregarded their arrangements. It’s like The Godfather, but better.

The first part of the Statue of Anne.

Then the Statute of Anne came along in 1710. Brief summary of the Statute: it stated that perpetual copyright does no good for learning because it makes knowledge too expensive/exclusive. Kind of like how university now is too expensive for some people. The Statute responded to the ideological debate surrounding the fact that people were claiming copyright for everything for forever. As copyright could only be held by one person (and as this exclusivity was enforced by the mafia Stationer’s Company) the prices could be set quite high because there was no competition. The Statue of Anne made it that copyrights were only valid for 21 years, and then had to be renewed (this was also how patents were treated at the time). This resulted in some pretty angry printers who didn’t approve of their copyrights being taken away. So they just ignored Anne. Just ignored it! With the Stationer’s Company in control anyway, nobody seemed to care. After all, everyone had already grown accustomed to the business model already in place – the business model that was dependent on perpetual copyright law and had very little competition.

Queen Anne disapproves of your tomfoolery!

Things really began to change over sixty years later because of a case called Donaldson v. Beckett in 1774. Basically, Alexander Donaldson (some random guy, not a member of the Stationer’s Company) printed James Thomsons’s The Seasons even though Thomas Beckett (a member of the Stationer’s Company) already held its perpetual copyright. I’ll spare you the nitty gitty details. All you need to know is that the Statue of Anne was enforced, and that the case led to the demise of the Stationer’s Company. Ding dong, the witch is dead!

When Alexander Donaldson began printing his cheap editions of “The Seasons” and other popular books, flooding the market with competition, he effectively changed the way the book history circuit worked. Almost immediately following Donaldson v. Beckett there was a massive boom in literacy because everyday people could finally afford to buy literature. That “reader” section of the book history circuit grew as fast as Usain Bolt runs.

This increased demand for print encouraged more and more printers to start their own print shops, printing the cheap reprints they knew would sell well. (That said, a lot of the shops failed because printers had to pay so much capital upfront, and there were very small profit margins.) The increased demand for print also led to more clear, definitive demarcations regarding who was a publisher, who was a printer, and who was a bookseller. There was increased specialization in the book trade and, instead of having one print shop serving as a book’s publisher, printer, and bookseller, different people began doing these jobs exclusively. Book production had become industrial and, in a factory environment, you don’t go to the factory to purchase the product – you go to the merchant.

So everything was all hunky dory in England as people started to settle in to the new way of doing business. But copyright laws in different countries didn’t hold. As industrialization and increased transportation led to more a globalized market, copyright issues became more common. There were English texts being printed in France and Ireland, where the author’s copyright no longer stood, and then being shipped back to London. America (in true American fashion) full on didn’t participate in London’s copyright nonsense; American literature hadn’t yet gotten much steam, and the vast majority of printed books in the States had initially been produced in the UK. In fact, it wasn’t until 1989 that the US updated their copyright laws to ensure that published works contained copyright notices, and there was finally international copyright equality (sort of).

Now we have a pretty uniform understanding of copyright around the world, though. For all intensive purposes, most copyright licenses today are renewable, just like what Anne wanted. The copyright lengths, however, differ slightly from country to country. In Canada, for example, an author usually has copyright for his/her entire life plus 50 years after his/her death. In the US it’s usually life plus 70 years (unless the work was published before 1978 – that’s a whole other can of worms). Most countries seem to stick to the whole life plus 50-70ish years, although it starts to get weird when you start looking at anonymous or “orphan” works. Nevertheless, we’re all sort of on the same page. Finally. And it’s all thanks to Anne.

Thanks, Anne.

Authors everywhere appreciate you.


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