30 Days – Day #15: Some Useful Background

So today’s meme-mandated topic is fanfic. I have nothing interesting or useful to say about fanfic – I haven’t read any in years. So I thought I’d talk about something that is at least slightly relevant to fanfic: copyright. Or rather, the history of copyright. I’m still working on what it turning out to be quite a long bit of writing about the Digital Economy Bill, and what I’m opening it with is a brief background on the history of copyright, which I thought might make good reading in any case…

Let’s start by admitting something: copyright is a good thing. That can get lost in all the shouting about piracy, and draconian measures and three strikes and creative commons and all the associated jargon. So it’s important to admit up front that copyright is a good thing, and the ideals it was created to protect are still good and valid today. We do need to provide a system to incentivise people to produce creative works, otherwise large parts of our culture will up and blow away. And it was in that spirit that copyright was first codified in England in 1709 by the Statute of Anne, or to give it it’s full 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.” (Incidentally, in case anyone’s wondering what people did before copyright law was codified, then you’ll find that spending five minutes looking up the term “book curse” will pay interesting dividends.)

It gave creators rights over their work for 14 years after creation, and gave them the ability to extend those rights for another 14 years on application. It also expressly ensured that distributors retained no rights to control use of the material after first sale. If you bought a book, you were free to read it in public, sell it on, or use it as kindling if you so wished – so long as you didn’t make your own copies and distribute those, you were in the clear. But after that time was up, the works would pass into the public domain, for the common good.

I’m not going to bore you with the full history of copyright, I just wanted to bring up the full title of that 1709 act. The spirit in which copyright law was created was that of education, and of safeguarding the common good, to balance the rights of creators and of the public. The rights of distributors, however, were quite expressly limited.

But then, in 1709, there wasn’t a lot of demand for books. The person who printed the book was quite likely to also be the person who sold the book. And if someone in Edinburgh wanted a book that had been written in London, they either got a friend to in London to buy them a copy, or they wrote to the printer and asked them to post it. Distribution was not really something that people worried about.

But the world moved on, and a revolution or three later, people in Edinburgh expect to be able to buy not just books, but CDs and films made and published not just in London, but in New York, or Beijing or Sydney. And over the last hundred years or so, distribution has become very, very important. Entire industries have been founded on the fact that actually, the job of creating and printing something is the least difficult bit of the process, and that the hardest part was first making people aware of the product, and then getting the product into the hands of people who might want to buy it. And copyright law changed because it served the common good to ensure that the people who did the marketing and distribution were incentivised to do so.

And then we invented the internet. And now my friends can make films, and write books and record music in their own homes, and with a little effort, they can tell people all over the world about them, and they can sell them to anyone that’s interested. Suddenly, marketing and distribution are the easiest part of the process.

And that’s where things start to go wrong, because there are now entire industries that are rapidly becoming irrelevant who can only remain relevant by appointing themselves as gatekeepers of what can be done with created works. And that’s the background to the Digital Economy Bill.