By George Johnson
Authors, patrons, and owners of works throughout the ages have
tried to direct and control how copies of such works could be
used once disseminated to others. Mozart's patron, Baroness
Waldstätten, allowed his compositions created for her to be
freely performed, while Handel's patron jealously guarded
Two major developments in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries seem to have provoked the development of modern
copyright. First, the expansion of mercantile trade in major
European cities and the appearance of the secular university
helped produce an educated bourgeois class interested in the
information of the day.
This helped spur the emergence of a public sphere, which was
increasingly served by entrepreneurial stationers who produced
copies of books on demand. Second, Gutenberg's development of
movable type and the development and spread of the printing
press made mass reproduction of printed works quick and much
cheaper than ever before.
The process of copying a work could be nearly as labor
intensive and expensive as creating the original, and was
largely relegated to monastic scribes before printing. It
appears that publishers, rather than authors, were the first
seek restrictions on the copying of printed works.
Given that publishers commonly now obtain the copyright from
the authors as a condition of mass reproduction of a work, one
of the criticisms of the current system is that it benefits
publishers more than it does authors. This is one of the chief
arguments in favor of peer-to-peer file sharing systems,
an analogy with the changes wrought by printing.
An interesting attempt at copyright in the early modern period
was the notice attached to the ha- Shirim asher li-Shelomo , a
setting of the Psalms by the composer Salomone Rossi, which
happened to be the first music to be printed with a Hebrew
type-face text (1623). It included a rabbinical curse on
who copied the contents.
While governments had previously granted monopoly rights to
publishers to sell printed works, the modern concept of
duration copyright originated in 1710 with the British Statute
of Anne. This statute first accorded exclusive rights to
authors (ie, creators) rather than publishers, and it included
protections for consumers of printed work ensuring that
publishers could not control their use after sale.
It also limited the duration of such exclusive rights to 28
years, after which all works would pass into the public
There were territorial loopholes in the 1710 Act. It did not
extend to all British territories, but only covered England,
Scotland, and Wales.
Many reprints of British copyright works were consequently
issued both in Ireland and in North American colonies, without
any license from the copyright holder required. These works
were frequently issued without payment to British copyright
holders, so they were cheaper than London editions.
There was, between 1710-1774, legal debate about what length
time was meant in the 1710 act.
Publishers in Scotland, in the 1730's, began to reprint titles
that they no longer considered to be protected by copyright.
Scottish publishers printed what they perceived to be public
domain English works whose copyright had expired. They sold
these titles in Scotland, and in the English provinces.
publishers objected to this, on the basis of what they saw as
common-law rights and property (under the concept of
rights in the English system), which predated the Copyright
Under common-law rights, rights in published works were held
continue into perpetuity.
The case of Donaldson vs Beckett, in 1774, brought
disagreements on the length of copyright to an end, and
common law in this regard. The outcome of the case resulted in
the decision that Parliament could, and had, put a limit on
This decision reflected a shift in English ideas of copyright.
The English lords who made the decision in 1774 decided that
was not in the public's best interest to have London
control books in perpetuity, particularly as English
not uncommonly kept prices higher than otherwise.
Concepts of the roles of the author and publisher, of
law, and of general Enlightenment notions, all interacted in
this period of copyright development. Authors had been
previously seen to be divinely inspired in some sense.
Patronage was a legitimate way to support authors, in part
because of this. Authors who were paid, rather than entering
into patron-relationships, were often regarded as hacks, and
looked down upon. However, the notion of individual genius was
becoming more common during the 1770's (the generation after
Donaldson v Beckett), and being a paid author therefore became
The Irish also made a flourishing business of shipping
to the North America in the 18th century. Ireland's ability to
reprint freely ended in 1801 when Ireland's Parliament merged
with Great Britain, and the Irish became subject to british
The 1886 Berne Convention first established recognition of
copyrights among sovereign nations, rather than merely
bilaterally. Under the Berne Convention, copyrights for
creative works do not have to be asserted or declared, as they
are automatically in force at creation: an author need not
"register" or "apply for" a copyright in countries adhereing
the Berne Convention.
The USA did not initially sign the Berne Convention and would
not do so until 1989, however many European countries did. The
UK signed on in 1887, on behalf of itself and its colonies,
did not implement large parts of it in British law until 100
years later, with the introduction of the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act of 1988.
About The Author: Find out how to copright a book.