Lord Kames Explains Why Copyright Is Not Property... In 1773

from the a-look-back dept

Mockingbird writes "I've posted the full text of Lord Kames's opinion in the important Scottish Sessions case of Hinton v. Donaldson from 1773. This was the case that rejected for Scotland, by a vote of 11-to-1, the theory of "common law copyright", that authors (meaning, in practice, publishers) had a perpetual copyright, at common law, of their writings. It was followed a few months later by the English House of Lords's decision in Donaldson v. Beckett, in which the English Lords rejected just as forcefully the claim that authors had perpetual copyright under the common law of England.

Of the twelve Sessions Lords who decided the case, ten issued opinions. Lord Kames's is one of the longer ones, and one of the most famous. Kames builds his case on principles of common law, property law, and commercial law, and finds the claim of "common law copyright" to be inconsistent with the principles of all these areas of law:
this claim, far from being founded on property, is inconsistent with it. The privilege an author has by statute, is known to all the world. But I purchase a book not entered in Stationer's hall; does it not become my property? I see a curious machine, the fire engine, for example. I carry it away in my memory, and construct another by it. Is not that machine, the work of my own hand, my property? I buy a curious picture, is there any thing to bar me from giving copies without end? It is a rule in all laws, that the commerce of moveables ought to be free; and yet, according to the pursuer's doctrine, the property of moveables may be subjected to endless limitations and restrictions that hitherto have not been thought of, and would render the commerce of moveables extremely hazardous. At any rate, the author of avery wise or witty saying, uttered even in conversation, has a monopoly of it; and no man is at liberty to repeat it.

Lastly, I shall consider a perpetual monopoly in a commercial view. The act of Queen Anne is contrived with great judgement, not only for the benefit of authors, but for the benefit of learning in general. It excites men of genius to exert their talents for composition; and it multiplies books both of instruction and amusement. And when, upon expiration of the monopoly, the commerce of these books is laid open to all, their cheapness, from a concurrence of many editors, is singularly beneficial to the public. Attend, on the other hand, to the consequences of a perpetual monopoly. Like all other monopolies, it will unavoidably raise the price of good books beyond the reach of ordinary readers. They will be sold like so many valuable pictures..... [the] booksellers, by grasping too much, would lose their trade altogether; and men of genius would be quite discouraged from writing, as no price can be afforded for an unfashionable commodity. In a word, I have no difficulty to maintain that a perpetual monopoly of books would prove more destructive to learning, and even to authors, than a second irruption of Goths and Vandals. "

Filed Under: copyright, lord kames, property, scotland


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  1. identicon
    mc, 10 Sep 2009 @ 8:45am

    Re: Re:

    Thanks for the valuable post.

    In my personal opinion copyright law, or better said, copyright, can help in the following way: if, after you created the work, you go to the local copyright office to register it, they you will have proof.

    If you dont register it, then you will need to use the general proof principles of law: indicia, pieces of evidence that lead to a "truth". Possible witnesses, internal documents, etc. But I know is hard.

    But of course, I agree that there can be cases that you won't have any proof, but this applies not only to copyright, but to all disiplines. What I mean is that the situation that you clearly described (lack of proofs) is not a deficiency of copyright alone, but it can happen in all situations in a day to day life.

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