from the bitter-reminders dept
Early in my legal career I had the opportunity to attend a conference in London organized to celebrate the launch of the Copyright History project. The goal of this project was to translate, annotate, analyze, and even just simply make available the original primary source documents that underpin our modern notions of copyright. It is an important enterprise because all too often we forget just how these historical documents actually do underpin it. History is often like playing a giant game of “telephone,” where meaning changes over time, and in the case of many of these documents our understanding of what they were telling us has also changed over time — and often become distorted. Having access to these original primary source documents means that we can recalibrate our understanding of what these policies actually were intended to do in order to ensure that our modern notions of copyright echo them properly.
At its launch the project included primary source documents from five jurisdictions — Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and the US (with others added later) — and the collection now includes documents from 1450 through 1900. For the conference, some of those original documents were brought in by an archivist and displayed under glass for us to examine. One of them was the original parchment copy of Statute of Anne, which attendees of the conference — including me — had the privilege of getting to see up close with our own eyes.
The Statute of Anne, whose anniversary of coming into force on April 10, 1710 we celebrate today, is one of the founding pillars of modern US and UK copyright law. At the time of its passage it reflected an enormous change in attitude about how the copy right should be handled. Before it came along English law (which is not to be confused with Scottish law, whose own system already bore more features of what we would recognize as modern copyright law) granted a monopoly in the copy right to a handful of printers that had the king’s permission to publish. (It was fitting, in fact, that the Copyright History conference itself took place in a hall of the Stationers? Company, one of the most powerful companies of the 17th century that then had near-exclusive license to print.) This use of a royal printing license to create a monopoly in publishing limited to just these few printers gave the government the ability to also limit what ideas could be published, which necessarily limited discourse.
However, the political pressure for democratic reform eventually caught up with this system, and by 1695 it finally gave way for good. And that set the stage for the Statute of Anne to be enacted in 1710, which changed the approach to copyright entirely. While the Licensing Act of 1662 was ?[a]n act for preventing the frequent abuses in printing seditious treasonable and unlicensed books and pamphlets,? the Statute of Anne was purposefully ?[a]n act for the encouragement of learning.? Whereas the former was about government control over ideas, the latter was about spreading them. Instead of using royal printing licenses to administer the copy right as a means of controlling discourse, by its very design the Statute of Anne was meant to stimulate it.
And it did. Right away newspapers proliferated, public houses exploded with popularity (as they had during earlier periods when licensing statutes had lapsed), and democratic ideals flourished as tight government control over ideas yielded. But while the structure of modern copyright law today looks much as it did following the Statute of Anne, its limiting effects on discourse now seem more similar to the period that preceded it.
There were a few other key differences between the Statute of Anne and the licensing statutes before it, beyond just their stated policy goals, which bore on the former’s ability to stimulate discourse. For instance, the Statute of Anne fundamentally shifted the role of the author. Before the Statute, authors were largely relegated to subordinate figures, barely mentioned in association with the work. Instead full authority for the work was usurped by the printer, who, as an agent licensed to act on behalf of the government, had the sole discretion to deem it acceptable to be published. With the Statute of Anne, however, authors became central to the whole system. They retained full authority for the work and as such retained the rights to control its publication.
These rights were of limited duration, however, and the Statute of Anne further enhanced public discourse by creating a public domain. In fact, the only reason the Statute of Anne gave authors any limited rights was simply to address the problem of market failure. The fear was that no ideas would be contributed to public discourse at all if it were economically impossible for authors to contribute them. With the goal of the Statute being to get those ideas out there, these limited author monopolies were intended as a means for achieving that end.
Unfortunately, however, while in the early 18th century the focus on protecting and enhancing the rights of authors was intended to facilitate the growth of public discourse around those ideas, today that same focus on authors’ rights does the exact opposite. With so much emphasis now being put on the rights of the author as owner of the work to control it, at the expense of the public benefit the system is supposed to impart, it has had the effect of choking off what discourse these works might spawn. Through needlessly lengthy monopolies and overly-expansive interpretations of the reach of these rights, history seems to be repeating itself, returning us to the discourse-choking limitations of the licensing era and forsaking the promise of the Statute of Anne to promote its spread.
For, just like the 17th Century printers, these authors? copy rights get their teeth from government. They are government-granted monopolies with government-sanctioned reaches. With those rights, and with the government?s blessing, authors can limit ideas? consumption and dampen their reach and influence long after any economic necessity would justify — and just as the licensed printers once did. Back then the Stationers? Company had powers of search and seizure and could prosecute competing printers; today, particularly as copyrights are so often aggregated in the hands of a few large corporate gatekeepers, modern infringement lawsuits look much the same.
So we find ourselves at the turn of the 21st century at the same crossroads we were at 300 years earlier, faced with a choice in how we use government power. Do we use it to enable public discourse, or to stifle it? For although our modern copyright systems trace their lineage back to the author-focused structure of the Statute of Anne, that basic structure alone does not determine which value is fostered. It?s how we implement it that matters to which ultimately survives.
Yet unfortunately, today, while the original document articulating that policy value to promote the spread of ideas has been carefully preserved, thanks to how we’ve enshrined the notion of copyright in our modern law, the historic change it was to herald has not.