Celebrating copyright

Posted by Nicklas Lundblad, Senior Policy Counsel

On the 10th of April 1710 -- 300 years ago this week -- the Statute of Anne was enacted in England. It is arguably the first modern copyright law, and a key foundation for the United States' earliest copyright statutes. Centuries later, copyright remains a critical institution that contributes significantly to our society and culture, and looking back at its origins can help us understand how it became what it is today.

Prior to the Statute, the British Crown controlled what books could be published. It gave a group of printers called the Stationers Company a monopoly over book selling and printing, and the government used its control of this group as a tool for censorship.

The Statute of Anne changed this system. For the first time, it granted authors rights to their works, and made it so anyone was eligible for a copyright. In this way, early copyright was anti-authoritarian and directly aimed at promoting free expression by shifting power to writers and away from printers and the state.

It also was aimed at promoting competition and the emergence of new creators and distributors. Rather than perpetual rights, copyrights would only exist for limited terms. This was intended to constrain a monopoly like the Stationers Company from existing in the future. Because any bookseller would be able to reprint valuable works after a certain period, it would be easier for others to enter the market and make these works available to the public.

Furthermore, the Act frames itself as “an encouragement for the act of learning" -- in other words, its goal is to provide the public with access to knowledge, and copyright is meant to be a means to that end. The idea was that providing incentives to create and share knowledge - costly and cumbersome at the time - should match the effort it takes to write a “useful work.”

Since encouraging learning was the purpose, the Act carefully balanced the interests and incentives of writers with the interest of learning. The limited term of protection was part of this balance. Another example of the commitment to knowledge sharing was the opportunity the Act offered for individuals to complain if prices were set at unreasonable rates. The Act also included a requirement that nine copies of a work be provided to the Royal Library.

Of course, much has changed in the centuries since the Statute was enacted. That said, it remains an important contribution to Western legal thought. We could do much worse than to study and learn from its intentions, as we try to understand copyright in the information society and how it needs to be shaped today to benefit users and creators in the best way possible.

If you're interested in reading more about the roots of copyright and how they apply today, see this piece in The Economist.