A Brief History of Copyright

Yeah, sorry to be returning to this topic yet again, I am perfectly aware that I am probably going to be repeating an awful lot of stuff that either a) I’ve said already or b) you already know. Nonetheless, having spent a frustrating amount of time in recent weeks getting very annoyed at clever people saying stupid things, I feel the need to inform the world if only to satisfy my own simmering anger at something really not worth getting angry about. So:

Over the past year or so, the rise of a whole host of FLLAs (Four Letter Legal Acronyms) from SOPA to ACTA has, as I have previously documented, sent the internet and the world at large in to paroxysms of mayhem at the very idea that Google might break and/or they would have to pay to watch the latest Marvel film. Naturally, they also provoked a lot of debate, ranging in intelligence from intellectual to average denizen of the web, on the subject of copyright and copyright law. I personally think that the best way to understand anything is to try and understand exactly why and how stuff came to exist in the first place, so today I present a historical analysis of copyright law and how it came into being.

Let us travel back in time, back to our stereotypical club-wielding tribe of stone age human. Back then, the leader not only controlled and lead the tribe, but ensured that every facet of it worked to increase his and everyone else’s chance of survival, and chance of ensuring that the next meal would be coming along. In short, what was good for the tribe was good for the people in it. If anyone came up with a new idea or technological innovation, such as a shield for example, this design would also be appropriated and used for the good of the tribe. You worked for the tribe, and in return the tribe gave you protection, help gathering food and such and, through your collective efforts, you stayed alive. Everybody wins.

However, over time the tribes began to get bigger. One tribe would conquer their neighbours, gaining more power and thus enabling them to take on bigger, larger, more powerful tribes and absorb them too. Gradually, territories, nations and empires form, and what was once a small group in which everyone knew everyone else became a far larger organisation. The problem as things get bigger is that what’s good for a country starts to not necessarily become as good for the individual. As a tribe gets larger, the individual becomes more independent of the motions of his leader, to the point at which the knowledge that you have helped the security of your tribe does not bear a direct connection to the availability of your next meal- especially if the tribe adopts a capitalist model of ‘get yer own food’ (as opposed to a more communist one of ‘hunters pool your resources and share between everyone’ as is common in a very small-scale situation when it is easy to organise). In this scenario, sharing an innovation for ‘the good of the tribe’ has far less of a tangible benefit for the individual.

Historically, this rarely proved to be much of a problem- the only people with the time and resources to invest in discovering or producing something new were the church, who generally shared between themselves knowledge that would have been useless to the illiterate majority anyway, and those working for the monarchy or nobility, who were the bosses anyway. However, with the invention of the printing press around the start of the 16th century, this all changed. Public literacy was on the up and the press now meant that anyone (well, anyone rich enough to afford the printers’ fees)  could publish books and information on a grand scale. Whilst previously the copying of a book required many man-hours of labour from a skilled scribe, who were rare, expensive and carefully controlled, now the process was quick, easy and available. The impact of the printing press was made all the greater by the social change of the few hundred years between the Renaissance and today, as the establishment of a less feudal and more merit-based social system, with proper professions springing up as opposed to general peasantry, meaning that more people had the money to afford such publishing, preventing the use of the press being restricted solely to the nobility.

What all this meant was that more and more normal (at least, relatively normal) people could begin contributing ideas to society- but they weren’t about to give them up to their ruler ‘for the good of the tribe’. They wanted payment, compensation for their work, a financial acknowledgement of the hours they’d put in to try and make the world a better place and an encouragement for others to follow in their footsteps. So they sold their work, as was their due. However, selling a book, which basically only contains information, is not like selling something physical, like food. All the value is contained in the words, not the paper, meaning that somebody else with access to a printing press could also make money from the work you put in by running of copies of your book on their machine, meaning they were profiting from your work. This can significantly cut or even (if the other salesman is rich and can afford to undercut your prices) nullify any profits you stand to make from the publication of your work, discouraging you from putting the work in in the first place.

Now, even the most draconian of governments can recognise that your citizens producing material that could not only benefit your nation’s happiness but also potentially have great material use is a valuable potential resource, and that they should be doing what they can to promote the production of that material, if only to save having to put in the large investment of time and resources themselves. So, it makes sense to encourage the production of this material, by ensuring that people have a financial incentive to do it. This must involve protecting them from touts attempting to copy their work, and hence we arrive at the principle of copyright: that a person responsible for the creation of a work of art, literature, film or music, or who is responsible for some form of technological innovation, should have legal control over the release & sale of that work for at least a set period of time. And here, as I will explain next time, things start to get complicated…


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