Very revealing look at the history of copyright called “Cultural Economics” by Harry Hillman Chartrand. The whole article is available here and it is very well worth reading. Here is the intro and a bit of early history:
- The Age of Myth lives! Today’s episode, however, is not about George Lucas, Steven King, Area 51, Harry Potter or the delayed Second Coming. It is about a great legal myth (or ‘fiction’ as members of the Bar prefer to call it). It is the Myth of the Creator summed up in Zechariah Chaffe’s words repeated in the prestigious Great American Law Reviews (Berring 1984):
… intellectual property is, after all, the only absolute possession in the world… The man who brings out of nothingness some child of his thought has rights therein which cannot belong to any other sort of property… (Chaffe 1945).
In this article I will explode this myth. I will expose its roots. I will follow up its trunk to the poison fruit hanging from its branches. I will argue that we should no longer eat of this fruit. Rather, we should move deeper into the garden to pluck the fruit from another tree – far from the whispering serpent that corrupted us from the very beginnings of copyright in the English-speaking world.
The Adam of our tale is played by the artist/author/Creator who brings something out of nothingness; our Eve stars the User – public and private, individual and institutional – of copyrighted works; the serpent is the Copyright Proprietor – printer/publisher/producer/multimedia conglomerate – who scammed the first fruit from Adam’s hands and persuaded innocent Eve to eat of a now poisoned fruit.
In keeping with myth, fairy tale and legal fiction, Time plays a critical role in the drama. The Past is always present; the Future is but the realization of our present hopes, fears and dreaming. During our tale we will relive revolutions, witness the rise and fall of kings and queens, and rejoice in the final triumph of democracy. We will encounter real life pirates as well as ‘privateers’ doing digital battle with global media barons for the entertainment and software dollar of citizen consumers while in temples of enlightenment – libraries, schools, universities and colleges – a haggard priesthood struggles to preserve the last flickering flame of ‘fair use.’ We will consult with seers, witches and wizards about alternative future worlds dominated by:
global media empires where ‘all-rights’ or blanket licenses extinguish creators’ rights enslaving mind and matter; or,
creativity havens where new Adams and Eves regain Paradise to eat again but this time from the Tree of Life.
The story begins:
Eight benchmarks will guide our tour of copyright history:
(i) The Abbot’s Psalter, 567
(ii) The Printing Press, 1456
(iii) The English Revolution, 1642-1660
(iv) The Glorious Revolution, 1689
(v) The Statute of Queen Anne, 1710
(vi) The Aftermath, 1769 & 1774
(vii) The American Revolution, 1776
(viii) The French Revolution, 1789
(i) The Abbot’s Psalter, 567
The first reported case of copyright infringement in the English-speaking world occurred in 567 of the Common Era. An Irish monk (later to become ‘Saint’ Columba of Iona) visited a neighboring monastery. Therein he copied – without permission – the Abbott’s Psalter. When the Abbot found out he demanded the offending copy be turned over to him; Columba refused. The Abbott appealed to the King who ordered the infringing copy be delivered to its ‘proprietor’; Columba complied (Beck 1998).
A mysterious medieval saying continues to haunt the imagination of Western Civilization: The Axiom of Maria Prophetesta or “Maria the Copt” – One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the Third comes the One as the Fourth (Jung, 1963: 249). Among other things, this saying was used to explain the mystery of the Christian Trinity: 3 Gods in 1. For purposes of our story, it will guide our exploration of the Myth of the Creator in the case of the Abbot’s Psalter.
In the beginning there is a Creator of an original work – thoughts, images, sounds – fixed in material form, e.g. the Abbot’s Psalter. The one becomes two when the work reaches an owner or Proprietor distinct from its Creator, such as the Abbot. The Creator may be long since dead or far distant but an intimate mental connection is made and ‘knowledge’ transmitted without the need for face-to-face contact between the two. This is the ‘extra-somatic’ or out-of-body transmission of knowledge that Carl Sagan characterized as a distinguishing feature of the human race (Sagan 1977).
Two becomes three when the proprietor allows access to the work by a third party – a User, or in our case, a visiting monk. As long as a ‘copy’ must be laboriously made by a hand then access can easily be controlled by a Proprietor and the ‘right to copy’ is not a problem. Thus in the case of the Abbot’s Psalter, the real question is thus how Columba’s efforts escaped notice until the work was completed.
The three becomes the Third, however, in the guise of the ‘public’ at large. In the case of the Abbot’s Psalter, this public included all potential users of Columba’s copy over whom the Abbot would have had no control if the copy was not delivered up to him.
And out of the Third comes the One as the Fourth – the State, or the King, in the case of the Abbot’s Psalter. The State is the One in that it is responsible – by royal birth, force of arms or election – for the well being of all citizens including Creators, Proprietors and Users. One ancient responsibility of the State is censorship of subversive or heretical creeds, ideas and the works that transmits such mental contagion to the public.
Censorship, of course, arose long before copyright. Thus the Golden Calf led to the Mosaic injunction in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: ‘Thou shalt not bow down to graven images!’ Plato’s Republic banned poets from doing anything save singing the praise of the Gods and Great Men in fear that pleasure and pain, not reason and law, would become rulers of the State (Plato, Book X, 1952: 433-434). And, there is the first Emperor of China’s Great Book Burning of 213 B.C.E. (Wilhelm, 1950: xlvii) and his alleged assertion: Before Me, No History! Copying was not a significant problem for ancient or medieval monarchs and dictators who could, and regularly did, reduce a limited number of hand-made copies of proscribed works and/or their Creators to ashes.
I like that: “Before me, no history.” A little solipsism erases the past – it seems our current copyright laws suffer a bit from the same disease.