Origins of copyrights –

I am just in the middle of writing an article on criminal law and virtual worlds and I am reviewing quite a bit of materials to understand the offences of theft, larceny and the related offences. That meant reviewing the concept of property. Two interesting bits came up:

  1. first, Blackstone’s understanding of property was that of physical property (one author calls it physicalisation of property, Vandevelde K, “The new property of the nineteen century: the development of the modern concept of property”, (1980) 29 Buffalo Law Review 325 ; most of us still use the term of tangibility) and that of exclusivity of property. Obviously, with information, the two paradigms are challenged: full intangibility with no possibility to transform it into something tangible; no exclusive control that would exclude per se the (legal) intervention of another
  2. secondly, the origins of copyrights are indeed into protecting the printing guilds. They had the right to copy; protection of the book trade. With the licensing system being abolished in 1694, the printing “firms” could not benefit from copy rights. Hence, they demanded that the authors should be granted copyrights, a request made with the hope that they, as printing press, would benefit indirectly from this right in the same way that they benefited from the original copyrights existing prior to 1694. The lobbying of Parliament resulted in the Statute of Anne 1709. Hammon G., “The legal protection of ideas”, (1991) 29 Osgoode Hall Law Journal 93. I found this piece of history fascinating because most articles published (but not books!!!) do not bring a single penny to their authors, but do allow publishers to make a living out of it … like in the good old days of the licensing system enforced at the time when printing was invented. Not that everything is bad with the new system, but, as I highlighted earlier, copyrights are not simply about the authors. The problems we face with online piracy should be seen under that light.

About Audrey Guinchard

Senior Lecturer @ University of Essex (UK)
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