Copyright History

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Many users of the World Wide Web are suggesting that copyright is now redundant and should be removed as computers and the web are making it very easy to copy almost anything, copyright is hard to enforce and hence users should have unlimited access to all works at no cost. Before pushing for this to happen, it is worthwhile to review the history of copyright to see why it exists and also what has happened in the past when copyright was removed and free copying of everything allowed.

Copyright started in the 1700s where the kings of France and England granted a royal monopoly to the guild of printers for publishing. Authors were required to sell their works to the printers in perpetuity (copyright ceased when they died) - they got paid but did not benefit much if it became a best seller (they sort of did, they would get a much bigger payment for their next book as printers would bid for the rights). This monopoly did not stop copying and pirate printers in other countries did copy books as well, however the majority of sales were for legitimate copies. As we have now, the laws and policing system helped to keep pirated copy sales down so the printers had the potential to make a profit and could afford to buy works from authors.

The French Revolution in 1789 changed all that. In France, the privilege system was removed and anyone could print anything they wanted to make information free for all citizens. The result was chaos. Lack of copyright meant that different printers/publishers could print works that were identical to other works. It was not just books, newspapers were copied (including the masthead) and sold for a lower price than the original as they were not paying journalists and research staff. Lack of ownership recognition also meant an unscrupulous publisher could print a book with poor content and place a well known authors name on it to make it sell, a blatant abuse of another persons reputation. Scientists found rivals claiming their inventions as belonging to them as there was no law preventing them from doing so. All the above and more did happen and within three years, all newspapers, books and journals had vanished as the publishers had either gone broke or realised it was impossible to make any profit. All that was left was pamphlets (paid by advertising) and pornography, items that only had a life of a day or two. All novels, guide books, scientific journals and other works of learning were no longer published. Of course the authors still had the knowledge but they stopped sharing it with the public as they could not protect their claim to it and the extra effort of getting it into print was not worth anything to the author or publisher. The public became very disappointed - they had little of quality to read and knowledge was not being shared as anyone could claim any idea was theirs. In 1793, only four years after copyright was removed, it was restored by the leaders of the French Revolution. The new system was fairer as it removed the privilege system by vesting copyright with authors (not publishers) and lasted until 10 years after an authors death. The idea of a period after death was brought in to stop mysterious deaths of authors (it had happened in England). The law recognised that it would not stop all copying but with legal penalties for pirating activities it could be kept to a minimum. Current copyright laws around the world are based on that oriiginal French law.

So what has this to do with the web. Some readers will realise that the web is very much like the French Revolution, much of it is filled with pages that are very much like pamphlets (simple information but not much detail or has advertising) and also there is plenty of pornography. Many want everything put onto the web for free, yes intially that would be great but how long do you think it would take for the publishers and authors who create detailed content that takes hundreds or sometimes thousands of hours to produce to stop producing that content. As a personal example, I am prepared to spend a few hours a week updating and supporting a free web site (this one). Yes it is an overview of many walking areas and in some ways similar to pamphlets (with no advertising). I estimate it takes between 100 and 200 hours each year which I do for free, thats my free time. Nothing much has changed as before the web existed I wrote many articles for club magazines and journals. An article is relatively easy, a few nights work for free but a book is a very different undertaking. For one of our books it takes somewhere between 1500 and 2000 hours work to produce (essentially a years full time work). Am I prepared to do that much work for free - like almost all authors the answer is no as we dont have that much spare time and like everyone else we have food to buy and bills to pay. If you want the depth of information there has to be some system whereby the producers have a chance of getting a fair return for their work. Yes the odd author gets lucky (example the Harry Potter books) but they are the exception, most authors do not get rich and earn get just enough to pay some of the bills. An article in The Age (June 2013) stated that less than 10 authors in Australia made more than $50,000 each year, the rest struggle to have enough time to write! If our books were given away freely we would not bother writing much, simply go do more walking and there would be no books - if we had to live on handouts then walking for ourselves only is more fun and cheaper than risking our own money plus months on a computer creating information for users who are not prepared to pay anything!

Is this true that other authors earn very little. The Guardian has an article about Evie Wyld, who has won prizes including Australia's Miles Franklin award,. She said that she earns around 8,000 per year (about A$15,000) from writing novels. A highly successful awarded writer earns less than the pension or unemployment benefits. This is typical of the book industry, very few earn more than the pension, the book system makes sure of that. In fact when they retire and go onto a pension (its impossible to save much from such low book income) their 'wage' will actually rise. If this happened in any other industry the unions would be striking and marching on the streets. A lot more is said about what authors earn near the bottom of my page about online guide book policy.

Essentially all information systems have both users and creators. If the creators cant make a living then they wont create quality information and the result is less information for users to consume. For readers, are you prepared to work for free, if you have accepted wages for any job then essentially you are not as thats the issue. Would you be prepared to work for someone else for a year for no pay and then continue that for a decade or two. I suspect all readers would tell the employer to get lost and that is what most authors will tell readers if copyright is removed for the web. By the way if you are prepared to work for free then come and work for us and we can then provide more free information on this site!

On another copyright issue would you be happy if someone misused your name and put it onto web pages that contained false information and damaged your reputation - I am sure most would be appalled if they had no rights to for its removal, thats another problem with copyright removal. I suspect those who place blogs and Facebook pages on the web would be very unhappy if another person was allowed to copy all their information onto another page with a different authors name. Those who advocate copyright removal forget that many web users are also content providers and they want the right to their own works protected. Even for free works, copyright laws provide protection for the authors name. Yes, some of these activities happen now but at least something can be done about removal once discovered - without copyright laws you could do nothing and copying would be far more prevalent.

While copyright looks like it benefits just the author, thats a flawed view. Before copyright, inventors and authors rarely shared their works with anyone and even then it was only their close friends and associates. Some academics speculate that the Industrial Revolution began because copyright (and patents) was created - this encouraged authors to share their knowledge and the result was an explosion of scientific knowledge as you could build on others knowledge rather than having to re-disover what others already knew. Copyright is intended to encourage authors to get their works published and place their works into the public domain (yes it will eventually become copyright free) and in return, the author gets a time limited right to own distribution rights to that work, they can give it away free or for some sort of return, its up to the author. Note, copyright laws ensure that after a specified time period, ALL published works will eventually become free for anyone to copy (as an example, all the Mark Twain books have recently become copyright free). History has shown that without copyright, most authors and publishers stop publishing and the public then loses as the information is never made publically available. If you continue to advocate copyright removal, the result might not be what quite what you expect, the information explosion could implode and become mainly pornography and advertising supported information, in fact a fair section of the web is already that!

On an historical note, for many years I taught students how to program using the internet well before the term 'World Wide Web' existed. The web was setup to freely share information and ideas. It was never intended to steal works from others (thats what copying is) and it was up to the authors (the content providers) to decide what to share. They NEVER shared all of their writing, research or ideas as that would have been foolish. Later users thought that as the web appeared to be free then everything should be on it and also should be free. The original users and designers never intended this to be the case, its a method of delivery for sharing ONLY what authors are prepared to share freely with others. Lets be honest with ourselves, many of us are prepared to freely share much of what we know but never ALL of what we know. Such information sharing was previously done in newsletters, magazine articles and other publications and required long searches in libraries to discover - the web has not really altered what people write about (even a blog is basically just a diary) - its just become much easier to discover the information which has been fantastic for all of us. Since the web started, some have found ways for charging for web use, be it through purchasing downloads or apps, paying subscriptions to encrypted web pages or by selling advertising on web pages - all are valid as its up to the author to decide how they will allow their work to be distributed within the time limited right given to them by copyright laws. The user can simply say no and not pay and hence not access that information and thats their right as well. What the user should not be able to do is to DEMAND a free right to access any authors creation during the copyright period. If that was the case you would be also making all blogs, facebook pages, all images and personal diaries available to anyone to use for any purpose and I am certain many web users would never want that.

In summary, copyright laws might not be perfect but they do work. They do encourage people to make their knowledge available to the public by having it published. Having a fee attached to the information, well that is how we have set commerce up, instead of exchanging potatoes for chickens as was once done, we exchange pieces of paper that have a value attached when we make an exchange. If the users value the knowledge then they will be prepared to pay something for that information. Thats really what copyright is about, if you value it then you should be prepared to pay for some of the effort needed to create it. If you dont value it then dont pay, but dont complain that you dont have access to the information. If you really want it free then just wait until the time limited rights period expires, depending on country its currently 50 or 70 years after an authors death - I think it should be a lot shorter to something like it originally was, 10 years after an authors death, but thats another issue.
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 Last updated : June 30th 2017