The history and development of copyright

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Redaktsioon seisuga 7. veebruar 2007, kell 16:07 kasutajalt Kakk (arutelu | kaastöö)
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Motto: Making laws is like making sausages: The less one knows about the process, the more respect one has for the outcome. - Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany.


The moral rights of the creator (similar to the current Continental European droit d'auteur) have existed probably throughout the human history, likewise the property rights on a copy (e.g. a book owned by someone). Also censorship (which is not directly related to author but can still remarkably influence the distribution) is very old. But the whole issue was quite modest up to the age of printing press - illegal copying and distribution were just not enough profitable to be practiced (books were copied by hand by literate slaves or later by scribes and monks - an expensive and slow process regardless of property rights). Yet some sources suggest that in the Roman Empire there was some kind of 'copyright transfer' mechanism - authors were able to sell their works to booksellers who then obtained full control of the creation.

During the Middle Ages, books were written and copied almost entirely by monks as the trade became one of the main activities of monasteries. With a relatively small 'market' (literate population) and further restrictions (due to the slowness of copying, access to the manuscripts was often restricted; sometimes also the decisions what to copy were prescribed by superiors), even the earlier attempts of regulation fell largely into oblivion. The rare cases were probably solved by common law (especially in England and later America where the common law tradition has been strong for a long time).

One of the early examples of 'copyright disputes' can be traced to a major saint of the Celtic church, St. Columba. Tradition asserts that, sometime around 560 (another source suggests 557), he became involved in a dispute with Saint Finnian over a psalter. Columba copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy. Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy. The dispute eventually led to the pitched Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561, during which many men were killed. (Columba's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Columba.) As penance for these deaths, Columba suggested that he work as a missionary in Scotland to help convert as many people as had been killed in the battle. He exiled himself from Ireland, to return only once again, several years later.

The authors of these times were largely working not on unit basis (paid to write a certain manuscript) but rather employed as full-time creative persons (court poets, musicians and entertainers) - the practice which was prevalent in earlier times and is still much more prolific than suggested by some hardcore IP spokespeople. This applies to the authors of some of the most hallowed creative works in human history - William Shakespeare was a professional playwright employed by the court (Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon and later King James); Johann Sebastian Bach was a court musician in Weimar; Georg Friedrich Handel was a conductor and the director of the Royal Academy of Music in London; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was employed in Salzburg, Vienna and Prague (a side remark: one of the early exceptions working as a freelance composer - and thus likely having to deal with copyright issues - was Ludwig van Beethoven). Similar examples can be found in abundance up to our days.

The age of printing starts

The exact chronology of Gutenberg Bible is still disputed, but it is mostly suggested that the printing of the first mass-printed book, a copy of a 1300-page Latin Bible, was started by Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type, in Mainz, Germany in 1455.

Luther vs publishers

Swedish writer Karl-Erik Tallmo has brought up a problem which has surfaced in various times and places, including Germany in Martin Luther's time. Luther being a popular writer, his works were often 'pirated' by publishers. While Luther did see the economical problem, his main concern was the changed content (to the point where sometimes he did not recognize the supposedly his own writing).

While Tallmo uses the example to justify (albeit in a moderate manner) the traditional model, this example can well be used to show the adequateness of free licenses - all free licenses protect authorship in cases like these, while not resorting to questionable measures.

The Licensing Act in England (1662)

   The ability to print books easily and cheaply raised the issue of piracy. As the number of printers increased in England, the King exercised the royal prerogative to regulate the book trade and protect printers against piracy. This was the first of many decrees to control what was being printed. It was the Licensing Act of 1662 which established a register of licensed books, along with the requirement to deposit a copy of the book to be licensed. Deposit was administered by the Stationers' Company who were given powers to seize books suspected of containing matters hostile to the Church or Government. By 1681 the Licensing Act had been repealed and the Stationers' Company had passed a by-law that established rights of ownership for books registered to a number of its members so as to continue regulating the printing trade themselves.


   The passing of the Statute of Anne, which was the first Copyright Act in the world to deal with this issue, introduced two new concepts - an author being the owner of copyright and the principle of a fixed term of protection for published works. The Act also brought about the depositing of nine copies of a book to certain libraries throughout the country. Subsequent Copyright Acts introduced copyright protection for other works. The term of protection was also extended.


   In 1875 a Royal Commission suggested that the present Acts should be improved and codified and strongly advised the Government to enter into a bilateral copyright agreement with America to provide reciprocal protection of British and US authors. After preparatory work had been carried out for the forthcoming Conference of Powers (resulting in the framing of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works), the International Copyright Act of 1886 was passed. The 1886 Act abolished the requirement to register foreign works and introduced an exclusive right to import or produce translations. British copyright law was extended to works produced in British possessions. The UK ratified the Berne Convention with effect from 5th December 1887.


   On the 1st July 1912 the Copyright Act 1911 came into force. It brought provisions on copyright into one Act for the first time by revising and repealing most earlier Acts. Amendments included the introduction of a further extension of the term of protection, together with a new arrangement for calculating the term of copyright. Records, perforated rolls, sound recordings and works of architecture also gained protection. The Act also abolished the requirement to register copyright with Stationers Hall - a fundamental principle of the Berne Convention. The Act abolished common law copyright protection in unpublished works, apart from unpublished paintings drawings and photographs.


   The Copyright Act 1956 came into force on 1st June 1957. It took into account further amendments to the Berne Convention and the UKs accession to the Universal Copyright Convention, administered by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Other amendments included new technological advances, for example, films and broadcasts, which were protected in their own right for the first time by copyright. The Performing Right Tribunal, the predecessor of the current Copyright Tribunal was also established.
   Several amendments were made to the 1956 Act prior to the introduction of the current legislation Part 1 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which came into force on 1st August 1989. The 1988 Act provided another major overhaul and updating of copyright law but the process has continued since then with a number of amendments, many implementing various European Directives. It is an ongoing process.

  • Queen Anne Statute
  • Berne Convention
  • DMCA