The Origins of Copyright


The most profound characteristic of the networked era we live in today is that ‘ordinary’ people can easily create and distribute their own content. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo are more than Internet versions of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Indeed, they enable budding filmmakers to showcase their works, singers to attract their own following, and artists to use the screens in people’s homes as their canvas. Most importantly, this direct form of broadcasting eliminates the need for a slew of middlemen, moderation and the accompanying politics. It does not end there, writers can publish their novels as e-books, journalists can report the news by using web logs, and everyone can share their day-to-day activities via social networks like Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Never before have there existed so many options to distribute and create one’s own content. Not all of this is of high quality, nor does it really need to be. As the ability to publish taps into the basic human needs of self expression and sharing. However, there are limits, because whatever anyone creates, there is one thing that protects every creative expression: copyright.

The origin of copyright stems back to a very old invention: that of the printing press. Prior to this, literacy rates were fairly low and reproducing texts was labor intensive: the manual letter-by-letter copying by writing was performed by educated monks in monasteries. The mechanical printing press changed everything, as it made it significantly easier to produce exact duplicates of a text. And this is exactly where the tension between authors of original works, publishers/distributors and consumers originated.

An unprotected work, one that is in the public domain, can be reproduced without the original author’s consent. Indeed, one may even take a work in the public domain, change nothing and republish it under one’s own credentials. There are no limits to how works in the public domain can be used and there is no legal protection for them. Luckily, a work is not in the public domain by default. Anything you create is at least protected by copyright automatically, with some minor exceptions. However, as we will see later, this is also a double-edged sword.

As Europe became more literate, the demand for books increased and concerns grew over the monopoly of the large printing companies. After all, they could republish any work without consent, and profit solely from the act of printing without compensating the original author. To remedy this, copying restrictions were introduced, first by self-regulation at the industry level, and later government enforced by copyright law.

The duration of copyright is limited, sharing some resemblance to the patent system. After you have created some original work, you have a set time to profit from it by displaying, selling or transmitting it. You also have the exclusive right to produce derivative works and naturally: to copy it. The (expected) return based on all these rights is intended to cover the costs it took in terms of your own labor as well as other resources to produce the work. This incentive may be an explanation for the proliferation of creative works over the last couple of centuries. After the copyright expires, your work enters the public domain. So, for how long is a work covered by copyright? Initially, this was about 14 to 28 years, but most countries now use the lifespan of the author plus 50 to 70 (!) years.

The expiration of copyright and the existence of works in the public domain give rise to a somewhat odd dichotomy. One can produce a derivative of a work in the public domain, and then produce a new original copyright-protected work from it. Do you know of anyone who has done this? I bet you do, since one of the most famous examples is Walt Disney.

This brief clip shows that Disney relied on many existing works. He created original derivative works by creating modern adaptations of them. In some sense this is exactly how human culture works: you build upon the works of others. Whether those derivative works should then by fiercely protected by a profit-driven entertainment company, is an interesting other debate.

In some way copyright seems entirely fair. After all, it provides an incentive for creating new works, and enables the author to make a living. However, there are some consequences of copyright law which have nothing to do with such lofty goals. These affect both the ownership and duration of copyright.

It is common to transfer ownership from the original author to some other entity, usually a publishing company. For example, many scientists have to transfer copyright of a final manuscript version of a publication to the publishing entity, like ACM or Springer. As scientific articles are usually paywalled, this leads to the odd construction that an author may have to pay to be able to view his original work in the final published form, although commonly, and commonsensically, such access is provided free of charge. Open source projects are another example: some require the author to sign over copyright to the project itself. One reason to do this is to prevent the situation where all copyright holders have to agree to a future license change, an other is a better legal position. These examples show that copyright does not necessarily remain with the original creators, but rather is transferred based on either direct monetary gain or legal convenience.

I think the legal convenience argument is somewhat weak: indeed, it can be better to have a slew of copyright holders involved. When a license change is proposed they can all democratically vote for it. With respect to monetary gain, science is the odd one out. Scientist produce their articles, and then publish them for free at conferences or in journals. Yet, the publishers are the only ones profiting in this system. Indeed, through scientific grands, the taxpayer indirectly funds those large publishing companies when scientists publish their works. However, this is just one route through which the public sponsors those companies: universities pay licensing costs for access to repositories of publications and printed journals, which is also public money. While the publishing companies do add value, by editorial means, providing infrastructure and promotion as well as actual printed works, it is doubtful whether such a cozy money-sandwich is justified for this rather limited contribution. Contrast this with the early days of printing, where the publishers were also responsible for the actual printing and brought to the table considerable knowledge and craftsmanship concerning typesetting and replication. These tasks have quietly shifted to dedicated printing companies and the authors themselves, weakening the role of traditional publishers.

The situation is different outside of science. Most artists get some form of compensation when they sign over their copyright. This can either be some fixed amount or a share of the profit. However, the lion’s share still goes to the publishers and distributors themselves. This also raises the interesting question: why should copyright last longer than the author’s lifetime? Who owns the rights, and the profits, after the author has died? In some cases these may be the heirs of the author, for example the Tolkien Estate holds the rights to The Lord of the Rings, which makes some sense. However, this is not always the case. For example, who owns the music of the Beatles (two of whom are still alive)? That would be Sony Music. So, they can profit from the Beatles’s catalog, consisting of over 250 songs, until probably the end of this century. Wait a minute, I thought the point of copyright was to fairly compensate the authors, so that they could make a living of what they had created? In fairness, the Beatles and their estates still receive some royalties (though most profits now go to Sony Music). However, the effort it took to create those original works has already been compensated many times over by this point, and even more so by the turn of the century.

This clip illustrates some of the points made thus far:

So far, we have learned about the origin of copyright and seen the deviation between the original goal of copyright: protecting the individual authors, and the present-day situation: publishers and large corporations owning vast amounts of intellectual property. However, computers and the Internet are changing the game. In a follow-up article, to appear soon, we will look at copyright in the digital age.

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