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.
CGP Grey. (2011). Copyright: Forever Less One Day. [Online Video]. 15 October 2017. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tk862BbjWx4. [Accessed: 15 October 2017].