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…

The Land of the Red

Nowadays, the country to talk about if you want to be seen as being politically forward-looking is, of course, China. The most populous nation on Earth (containing 1.3 billion souls) with an economy and defence budget second only to the USA in terms of size, it also features a gigantic manufacturing and raw materials extraction industry, the world’s largest standing army and one of only five remaining communist governments. In many ways, this is China’s second boom as a superpower, after its early forays into civilisation and technological innovation around the time of Christ made it the world’s largest economy for most of the intervening time. However, the technological revolution that swept the Western world in the two or three hundred years during and preceding the Industrial Revolution (which, according to QI, was entirely due to the development and use of high-quality glass in Europe, a material almost totally unheard of in China having been invented in Egypt and popularised by the Romans) rather passed China by, leaving it a severely underdeveloped nation by the nineteenth century. After around 100 years of bitter political infighting, during which time the 2000 year old Imperial China was replaced by a republic whose control was fiercely contested between nationalists and communists, the chaos of the Second World War destroyed most of what was left of the system. The Second Sino-Japanese War (as that particular branch of WWII was called) killed around 20 million Chinese civilians, the second biggest loss to a country after the Soviet Union, as a Japanese army fresh from an earlier revolution from Imperial to modern systems went on a rampage of rape, murder and destruction throughout the underdeveloped northern China, where some war leaders still fought with swords. The war also annihilated the nationalists, leaving the communists free to sweep to power after the Japanese surrender and establish the now 63-year old People’s Republic, then lead by former librarian Mao Zedong.

Since then, China has changed almost beyond recognition. During the idolised Mao’s reign, the Chinese population near-doubled in an effort to increase the available worker population, an idea tried far less successfully in other countries around the world with significantly less space to fill. This population was then put to work during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, in which he tried to move his country away from its previously agricultural economy and into a more manufacturing-centric system. However, whilst the Chinese government insists to this day that three subsequent years of famine were entirely due to natural disasters such as drought and poor weather, and only killed 15 million people, most external commentators agree that the sudden change in the availability of food thanks to the Great Leap certainly contributed to the death toll estimated to actually be in the region of 20-40 million. Oh, and the whole business was an economic failure, as farmers uneducated in modern manufacturing techniques attempted to produce steel at home, resulting in a net replacement of useful food for useless, low-quality pig iron.

This event in many ways typifies the Chinese way- that if millions of people must suffer in order for things to work out better in the long run and on the numbers sheet, then so be it, partially reflecting the disregard for the value of life historically also common in Japan. China is a country that has said it would, in the event of a nuclear war, consider the death of 90% of their population acceptable losses so long as they won, a country whose main justification for this “Great Leap Forward” was to try and bring about a state of social structure & culture that the government could effectively impose socialism upon, as it tried to do during its “Cultural Revolution” during the mid-sixties. All this served to do was get a lot of people killed, resulted in a decade of absolute chaos, literally destroyed China’s education system and, despite reaffirming Mao’s godlike status (partially thanks to an intensification in the formation of his personality cult), some of his actions rather shamed the governmental high-ups, forcing the party to take the angle that, whilst his guiding thought was of course still the foundation of the People’s Republic and entirely correct in every regard, his actions were somehow separate from that and got rather brushed under the carpet. It did help that, by this point, Mao was now dead and was unlikely to have them all hung for daring to question his actions.

But, despite all this chaos, all the destruction and all the political upheaval (nowadays the government is still liable to arrest anyone who suggests that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea), these things shaped China into the powerhouse it is today. It may have slaughtered millions of people and resolutely not worked for 20 years, but Mao’s focus on a manufacturing economy has now started to bear fruit and give the Chinese economy a stable footing that many countries would dearly love in these days of economic instability. It may have an appalling human rights record and have presided over the large-scale destruction of the Chinese environment, but Chinese communism has allowed for the government to control its labour force and industry effectively, allowing it to escape the worst ravages of the last few economic downturns and preventing internal instability. And the extent to which it has forced itself upon the people of China for decades, forcing them into the party line with an iron fist, has allowed its controls to be gently relaxed in the modern era whilst ensuring the government’s position is secure, to an extent satisfying the criticisms of western commentators. Now, China is rich enough and positioned solidly enough to placate its people, to keep up its education system and build cheap housing for the proletariat. To an accountant, therefore,  this has all worked out in the long run.

But we are not all accountants or economists- we are members of the human race, and there is more for us to consider than just some numbers on a spreadsheet. The Chinese government employs thousands of internet security agents to ensure that ‘dangerous’ ideas are not making their way into the country via the web, performs more executions annually than the rest of the world combined, and still viciously represses every critic of the government and any advocate of a new, more democratic system. China has paid an enormously heavy price for the success it enjoys today. Is that price worth it? Well, the government thinks so… but do you?