The History of Intellectual Property

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

Today we're going to talk about the idea that you can own knowledge, and about why this is a bad thing. Specifically, for various reasons, we're going to talk about where one of the most common sorts of owning knowledge, copyrights, got its start, and why, and what happened, and what lessons we can learn from all of that.

[Note: I'm not saying that copyright is owning knowledge, at least not as it was originally intended and implemented, but that is what it has come to equate to today, through the abuse of copyright law by the media industry.]

Most modern copyright histories trace copyright from the British Statute of Anne in 1710. They tend to gloss over why and how the Statute of Anne happened, which takes us back to 1662.

Prior to this time, people certainly made occasional attempts to control what was done with intellectual creations, mostly through limiting access to the actual knowledge - things like trade secrets. A song or a poem could and would be repeated by anyone who heard it.

But the first real copyright law didn't show up until the movable type press came on the scene, and suddenly printing became big business.

In that era, it was fairly common for the King to grant a monopoly to somebody in exchange for a large sum of money. Bribery, in a nutshell; legally allowed bribery, but still basically bribery. Eventually this got out of hand and the population, through parliament, put an end to this sort of abuse, but in essence, the first copyright law was procured via legalized bribery.

In 1662 the King of Britain issued a decree creating the Licensing Act, what came to be known as "Stationer's Copyright", granting the London printer's guild (specifically "The Company of Stationers of London") a monopoly on works they printed. Note that's a monopoly on the works printed by the guild. It had nothing to do with the rights of the authors. An author couldn't get a copyright for a book, the book had to be printed to get a copyright.

Along with the monopoly came some policing powers. To make a long story short, the guild eventually abused its policing powers to the point where public outcry caused Parliament to pass the Statute of Anne in 1710. Even then, although the statute was initially written to be much more about protecting authors' rights, pressure from the printing industry weakened the final Statute.

So what do we learn from this history?

The first copyright law started in corruption (legalized bribery is still bribery).

The first copyright law was spurred by technology. Specifically by businessmen trying to get a lock on potential profits resulting from new technology, just like today.

It has never been about protecting creators. From the very start, from the first copyright law, it was never about protecting the author's rights. There were some attempts to make the Statute of Anne protect author's rights, though the printing industry got much of that removed from the final version of the Statute (and even then, 21 years later when the first Statute of Anne copyrights began to expire, the printers tried their damndest to regain control).

It has always been about commoditizing creative works for the benefit of business.

Copyright law has been abused from the start, and ultimately lead to reform.

And now I'll do a little IP infringing of my own, and steal a quote:

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Note: Despite all of the above, I am not some commie pinko scum (although I know some). The founding fathers didn't like copyright - they recognized it for the awkward kludge it was. But they knew we needed something, so they limited the damage it could do by including that "limited time" phrase. Creators need to be paid for their work (just like everybody else). Creation needs to encouraged for the good of society. However, the current situation is a mess; it enriches businessmen (who certainly deserve to be paid for their work, but just as certainly aren't entitled to a free ride to easy street) at the expense of the creative commonwealth.

Random Notes

These are some notes for further writing, but are still in very rough form. I include them here in case you want to do some research on your own.