A Historical Perspective

Ancient Times through the Middle Ages
After the Invention of the Press
My Analysis of This

This section aims to give a historical perspective to why copyrighted work ought to be freely and non-commercially re-distributable.

Ancient Times through the Middle Ages

During ancient times (before the invention of paper, and the press), texts were written on stone or on animals’ hides and required a lot of effort to duplicate. As such, the authors encouraged people to copy, quote, and re-use their text, as long as they maintained proper attribution.

After the Invention of the Press

After the Press was invented, and became cheaper, commercial books started to appear. Eventually copyright on texts emerged to make sure that:

  1. Artists would be protected so their works will not be re-printed by publishes and prints.

  2. Make sure other prints won’t be able to re-print the works of other publishers.

At first it was applied exclusively to written works. Not to audio or video recording, which did not exist yet, nor to to melodies, pictures, videos, etc.

It was decided that after a limited time when the author or his estate held the exclusive copyrights for the work, the work would be transferred to the public domain, to make sure it can be freely reused and manipulated by future generations. The first such term in the USA was 14 years with a potential extension of another 14 years.

My Analysis of This

The Copyright Act of 1790 granted the originator of a text “the sole liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending” of a work. Note that it does not talk about mere duplication. Printing and reprinting were at the time very costly operations, produced works of good quality, and required a non-negligible amount of money to perform. On the other hand, if a person was to copy the work by hand, it would not have fallen under this law.

Furthermore, it makes sense that now that we have the Internet that can “copy arbitrary blobs of data from one place to another at virtually no cost, in virtually no time, with virtually no control” (to quote Cory Doctorow), then the copyright laws will once again be amended to reflect the new technological reality.

Trying to stop such copyright “infringement” on the Internet is not going to be successful. And so far, it seems the Internet helps the originators of such works, more than it harms them.