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
    Reed, 10 Sep 2009 @ 8:59am

    Re: Just say no to intellectual property

    "Maybe copyright is not the way to regulate the right of attribution, but I think nobody can disagree with the statement that this needs to be regulated somehow. For the time being, is copyright. Maybe in the future there is another form."

    I for one do not believe in an artificial system of intellectual property at all. To say that someone has any rights over something they have sold is asinine to the extreme.

    An artist creates something and he/she sells it, end of story. If everyone copies it that is no big deal, that is how our culture works. The artist then goes and creates something else. It is the best incentive around to keep creating.

    We don't have to wait until some mythical future date to abolish IP law. We see the flaws, we see how the resources are being wasted, we see how the concentration of power corrupts corporations, why do we defend a broken system?

    An imaginary system that is broken by design and still people want to "reform it". It amazes me how far people will run with a bad idea.

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