Marshall Mateer

Little History of Copyright

[yellow_box]Welcome to Profesor Zebra’s justly famous ‘Little History of Copyright’.  The History of Intellectual Property and Copyright is part of the weave of culture, commerce & society. Its threads pass over and under those of freedom of speech, democratic rights, censorship, legal rights, business, technology & knowledge. Sometimes a rich tapestry – sometimes a Gordian knot.

Professor Zebra in his libraryProfessor Zebra and Baby Hippo reading the ‘Marchant of  Venyce’ in their Library. They are reading the complete plays of  Shakespeare: 40 miniature volumes published as a promotional extra – like a “Free CD or DVD” in a newspaper today – in the UK by Allied Newspapers (The Daily Mail) at various times between 1910 – 1930. 

Shakespeare often based his plays on older stories and plays; George Bernard Shaw (another playwrite) referred to Shakespere as “the immortal pilferer…”.  So was Shakespeare stealing and re-hashing others’ ideas or was he developing them into something new and unique?  Photo: Mateer, 2008.

The Statute of Anne

The Statute of Anne of 1710 was the the first national copyright act in the world. It alluded to the individual moral rights of authors giving them rights over the printers for a limited period – 14 years.

The Statute began, “Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing… Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors… to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families:…”

The subtitle of the Act says, “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”. The emphasis is on the general principle of “Learning for all” of which rights to copies are a particular exception. In the Copyright Act of today “learning” has become reduced to “private study” and “instruction” and it is “learning” that is the “exception”; is this progress?

Note: The date of the Queen Anne Act is given either as 1709 when it was “enacted” ( went through parliament) or, more correctly, 1710 when it came into force.

 Nice website by Karl-Erik Tallmo with images and text of the ‘Statute of Anne’ and transcriptions.

Image.  Guttenberg Project. ‘Queen Anne’ from ‘The History of England’, by David Hume Esq. Vol 3, by Tobias Smollet. written 1688. published 1860. permalink

Well Queen Anne you might have been the first national Act – but you certainly weren’t the first bit of copyright stuff!

The Royal Library at Alexandria – Egypt, late 3rd century BCE – or BC if you go to old skool!

The Great Library at Alexandria - 19th century depiction.The Royal Library at Alexandria was the first major go at world domination in the knowledge stakes with a mission to collect everything not just from its own country, Egypt, but from all corners of the known world including Greece and as far east as India. Compare Google’s mission, ” … to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful …”

The Great Library did more than just collect – it also cared for the books, carried out textual analysis and translation and made directories and commentaries. It is also reputed to have carried out a number of tactics to gather books, including book or manuscript tolls for ships passing through Egyptian ports and borrowing books from Greek libraries – at this time copying was permitted as part of the loan procedure – and then, not returning them.

“The Great Library of Alexandria.” by O. Von Corven a 19th century German engraving – a reconstruction based on (some) archaeological evidence. Google Image search indicates it is the most used image of the Royal Library. Wikipedia claim that it’s in the Public Domain. Britannica doesn’t say anything. A blog has some more information on the source but then that file may be copied from a more recent book. Oh dear! where DO you get a reliable and usable image you can use in school? There are increasingly, good photographs/descriptions and reconstructions of the archaeological remains – some of which seem to indicate that Von Corven was not all wrong.

 Rome – – free speech – – 4th Century 

“Oratio publicata res libera est.” = “a speech made public is free.” In a speech by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (345-410) ::  Who he?

:: …and an echo across the centuries from today! Your voice, Your rights – Podcasting – great ideas of principle persist.  And in general too ..once you communicate it is to some extent at least out there and a shared property.

Of Saints and Sinners: Ireland, 6th century.

Logo of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency

Logo of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency

Saint Columba of Ireland and Iona, was, in a way of speaking, one of the first “file-sharers”. On visiting a monastery he would borrow a book and then get his own scribes to make copies and distribute them. He became notorious for the practice and one abbot on hearing St Columba was about to visit buried his library in an orchard rather than have it plagiarised. Finally, St Finian of Maigh Bhile, – Ireland was rich in Saints at this time – who had been Columba’s teacher and fearing for his prized Latin Psalter demanded its return along with the copy that Columba had made. Columba said he could have the original, but the copy was his own. St Finian objected and referred the matter to Diarmaid, the High King.

Amongst the laws of the then agricultural Ireland was one which stated that a calf, wherever it was found wandering, belonged to its mother and should be returned to her. Using this well-founded precedent the High King pronounced against Columba, “Le gach bó a buinín agus le gach leabhar a chóip” or “As to every Cow its Calf, so to every Book it’s Copy.”

The cow/calf metaphor is appropriate as at that time books were made of vellum – treated calf’s skin – not paper:

A copy of this entry from the ‘Judgements of Diarmaid’ – Ireland 6th century – is on display in the entrance to the World Intellectual Property Organisation – see WIPO.

:: The original copied Psalter or The Cathach of Columba’  from the Royal Irish Society website.

:: An example of a recent reference to the story in the Irish Parliament. ‘Seanad Éireann – Volume 104 – 07 June, 1984. Copyright (Amendment) Bill, 1984: Second Stage.’  Irish Parliament 1984

:: Irish Copyright Licensing Agency

 … copyright risk assessment – 16th century style …

A woman sitting with her hand to her face - sad, melancholy, ...

‘Melancolia I’ an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, 1514

In Venice and Germany in the 15/16th century a system of grants of licence was established for publishing – a system later used in England. However, pirates were happy to make copies, not just of books but of engravings as well, selling them on, in many cases to a wider, less well-off market. Here is the German renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer warning those who would copy his wood cuts – not just at risk of losing their internet service – but at risk for their life and soul.

“Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.”
Albrecht Dürer, 1511 
:: ‘Melancolia I’ by Albrecht Dürer, 1514. Image from Wikipedia. Click on the image to see the larger ‘preview’ image in Wikipedia Commons, then click again to get the full resolution size – huge! Now use the scroll bars to explore the areas of the woodcut and wonder at how Dürer created the image – he drew it and a craftsman using a small chisel-like tool cut the lines into a wooden block and then a skilled printer made the paper prints – and how much work was put into making it. Now ponder how much work even a reasonable copiest would have to put in, in those distant, pre-digital days. If Melancolia is glumly meditating on the act of creation perhaps it’s the impending durations of copyright that are having the effect, “You mean this goes on, like, for ever?”
 Article written 6th June 2010
:: Quote from William Patry’s excellent blog on Copyright September, 2009. Read Patry on Dürer
This page and the articles are copyright Marshall Mateer 2010-2013. Acknowledgements and sources for third party images, quotations and references are provided in the text.