The Origins of Copyright

The Origins of Copyright

The common and often misattributed quote that “nothing is certain in life, except for death and taxes” appears to hold true in modern society.  As we progress through the Information Age, it almost appears that there could be a modern addendum to this saying. Perhaps a more current saying would entail ‘nothing is certain in life, except for death, taxes, and copyright law.’ Yes, copyright law. The almost enigmatic concept, denoted by the © symbol and haunts both creative types and grad students alike. The omnipresent status of this elusive © begs the question; where does it come from? The answer to this seemingly modern question lies with a visit to the past.

Copyright, like many things in our society, originated as an artifact of the British Monarchy. The year of 1710 marked the Unification of England and Scotland into the newly established Great Britain, as overseen by the reigning monarch Queen Anne. Anne, being the boss-lady she was, is also responsible for the enactment of the ‘Statute of Anne,’ something that is now commonly referenced as the first copyright law. This statute is also known under its long title – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” This act, as elucidated upon in its longer name, allowed authors to have control over who was allowed to make copies of expand upon their books for a specified period of time. Sounds like a pretty good idea, no? Well, the British colonists in the Americas at the time certainly thought so, which resulted in them using the ideas embodied in the Statue of Anne almost verbatim as the premise for the Copyright Clause in the United States Constitution. (No word on whether the irony in this action was lost upon them.)  (CGP Grey, 2011)

The history lesson on the origin of copyright law, although providing context, does not answer the question on how copyright law applies to modern society. What is copyright law exactly, in practical terms? Well, in essence, copyright law exists to symbolize an agreement between content creators and society as a whole; basically, it encourages creators to make more content with the assurance that they will get credit for their work, therefore ensuring that society itself gets more content to enjoy. By this understanding, it seems like a pretty fair deal, one that definitely results in a net gain for all parties involved and surely hasn’t resulted in any unintended, prohibitive consequences, right?  As we move towards an increasingly digitized society, it is easier to replicate (copy) content at nearly no cost and share it to a wider audience than ever before possible. As a consequence of these technological developments, it seems appropriate to re-visit the question- who do the protections of copyright law ultimately benefit? The answer to that question will have to wait until next time.

Work Cited

CGP Grey. (2011). Copyright: Forever Less One Day. [Online Video]. 15 October 2017. Available from: [Accessed: 15 October 2017].



Who is Aaron Swartz?

In the previous blog posts, I have discussed both the origins of copyright law, and subsequently what the definition of “fair use” is. These posts have been precursors to what, or rather who originally sparked my interest in the field of library and information sciences and consequently the practices related to it. This person is Aaron Swartz.

The first time I heard about Aaron Swartz was in the documentary titled The Internets Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Aaron Swartz at a young age led a extremely productive, inspirational, and ultimately tragic life. His work and activism in the library and information sciences field are both the source of his legacy, but also the reason that he ultimately took his own life at the age of 26.


I cannot recommend this documentary enough for anyone interested in the field of information sciences, or social justice in general. The format of the documentary narrators the story of Swartz short life, interspersed with commentary by his friends and family. It is made clear that Swartz was very clearly extremely brilliant at a young age. At 13 he won a prestigious award for creating an outstanding website. At 14 he collaborated as part of the group responsible for the development of RSS, which would later come to be a foundational tool in website creation. He would continue to make significant contributions to computer sciences, including being the co founder of the popular website Reddit.  Swartz would later become involved in information activism during his time as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was around this time when he became privy to the current system of how academic research is made available on the internet. Academic research is often funded by private organizations, or research grants. Nowadays, in the age of the internet, this information is then uploaded to a digital repository, where is sits behind a paywall where users must pay to access the material. This money is not paid is royalties to the researchers or authors of these publications, rather retained by the digital library or repository in question. Swartz became very outspoken on what he believed the fundamentally unethical nature of this practice in the information age. He believed that withholding this information from the public was in fact immoral. This is a stance I happen to agree with Swartz upon. In the document published by Swartz titled the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” he outlines how one of the greatest achievements of modern civilization is the creation of the internet was the creation of the possibility to digitize, and therefore share nearly all scientific (or any written) information ever created and share it with the rest of civilization. However, when some of this information is kept behind these paywalls created a giant barrier to access. For example, if it costs approximately 80 American dollars for an individual to access a single article on a academic repository, this could very well make up a significant portion of their monthly, or even yearly income, particularly in developing countries. Although this is a practice carrier out by many online repositories, Swartz took particular issue with JSTOR. How Aaron went about challenging this practice was setting up a secret server at MIT which used the universities access to the repository to automatically download hundreds of thousands of articles off the JSTOR repositories, which he would then upload to a repository of his own creation where they would be then accessible for free. Unfortunately, when JSTOR became privy to this, legal action was taken against Aaron Swartz for his intellectual theft and copyright infringement. Even after JSTOR decided to drop any civil charges against Swartz, he was pursued for the FBI as what was dubbed as intellectual theft is a federal offense in the USA. Facing many life sentences in prison for his violations, Aaron Swartz took his own life on January 11th, 2013, causing a tragic end to this brilliant individuals life.

The only solace that can be taken in this occurrence is if we pursue his legacy to ensure his contributions were not made in vain. I really do urge all persons, even those not involved in the field of library or information sciences to watch this documentary as this short blog post does not do justice to all the accomplishments Swartz was responsible for. At the very least, I believe it can make more people aware of the importance of information activism, open information, and ultimately how even one individual can make a huge difference when trying to make the world a better place. In fact, this documentary was released onto the internet using a  Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 meaning the full movie is available to watch on youtube and its totally not illegal to watch.




What is Fair Use?

In the previous blog post we discussed the origins of copyright law. This premise leaves open room for many questions regarding the nuances of copyright law, particularly for scholars. Something especially pertinent is the concept of “fair use.” Specifically, what is fair use exactly, as it pertains to copyright law? In the most general terms, ‘fair use’, in relation to copyright law, refers to the right of individuals to use other authors published material, as long as they either build on it, comment on (or critique) it, or use it is another such way that is considered “transformative” of the original work. As discussed previously in the first blog post, this arrangement seems to be one that is mutually beneficial for society. The agreement embodied by the basis of copyright law basically serves as a societal contract; if users agree to give credit to creators where due, content creators will have an increased incentive to create more material for society to enjoy- a win-win scenario. This premise serves as the origins for the concept of ‘fair use’…that an individual can use the content created by another author in so long as that they use the work in a “transformative way.”

What is transformative use?

Transformative use, although a fairly recent substantiation to the fair use laws, is one of the most important principles regarding the distinction between what is and what isn’t fair use in copyright claims cases. What transformative use is referring to whether or not the original (copyrighted) content in question has be changed substantially enough that it is considered to be transformed. Traditionally, something has been considered fair use by virtue of its transformative status if the work is considered elaborative of an previous authors contribution, by virtue of building upon it or critiquing it. This definition is however by no means a clear distinction between what is and what isn’t fair, transformative use, and is still something that has been of much contention in recent years. One pertinent example is the case regarding google books. The recent case with Google pertained to their “google books” project which involves the addition of printed books in digital scannable format into the google archives, which are in turn accessible by the public.  However, this project has not been without its legal challenges. The main suit that has been brought against the Google books project is that the digitization of the literature is a case of blatant plagiarism- meaning that google is profiting off of the publication of these books as its own rather than attributing (and of course rewarding) the original authors. Google’s rebuttal to this contention is that the digitizing of these books IS in fact a transformative use of this material; digitizing books that had previously been in only print format is changing the original work in such a way that it is in fact fair use.

Final rulings aside, ,the entire premise of this case leads us to a another question that begs to be asked: who, in the modern age, are these copyright laws really protecting?

Further reading