As some of you may know, April 10 marked the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, otherwise known as “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” and generally recognized as the first copyright statute and the origin of modern copyright law. Of course, in recognition of this milestone, there have been a number of comments, op-eds and articles recognizing the passage of three centuries of copyright law.
The Statute of Anne changed this system. For the first time, it granted authors rights to their works, and made it so anyone was eligible for a copyright. In this way, early copyright was anti-authoritarian and directly aimed at promoting free expression by shifting power to writers and away from printers and the state.
It also was aimed at promoting competition and the emergence of new creators and distributors. Rather than perpetual rights, copyrights would only exist for limited terms. This was intended to constrain a monopoly like the Stationers Company from existing in the future. Because any bookseller would be able to reprint valuable works after a certain period, it would be easier for others to enter the market and make these works available to the public.
By the end of the 17th century, this partnership lapsed, threatening the publishers’ monopoly. The publishers tried repeatedly to reinstitute the scheme, but amidst the growing importance of the electorate and an increasing hostility to private monopolies, all their efforts failed. The publishers had to change their strategy. If they were unable to reestablish copyright all for themselves, the next best thing for them would be to assign property rights directly to authors, who, unable to print and distribute their works on their own, would have no choice but to contract with the publishers. Publishers could then bargain with the authors to get exclusive publication rights, in essence perpetuating their monopoly over books.With this goal in mind, the publishers convinced Parliament that the creation of strong intellectual property rights was essential to encourage the advancement of learning.
So the Statute of Anne was born, and on April 10, 1710, became law.
I find it interesting (though perhaps not surprising) that two different groups can come, more or less, to two seemingly diametrically opposed conclusions regarding the effect, or intended effect, of the statute. Perhaps not surprisingly in this day and age, opinions on copyright do vary significantly. It seems that this variance also happens to find its way into the recounting of history.