This week marks the Tercentenary of the 1710 Statute of Anne - the world's first Copyright law. It also marks the first discussion of the Digital Economy Bill in the Commons. And in 1865, the Locomotive act was being discussed in the Commons too. How do they compare?
The Statute of Anne opens like this:
Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to be Printed, Reprinted, and Published Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families: For Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books;
In other words, its goal was to prevent those who have Printing machines from exploiting the creative Authors. Sadly, this aim went astray over the years, with Macaulay opposing extension in 1841 by saying:
At present the holder of copyright has the public feeling on his side. Those who invade copyright are regarded as knaves who take the bread out of the mouth of deserving men. Every body is well pleased to see them restrained by the law and compelled to refund their ill-gotten gains. No tradesman of good repute will have anything to do with such disgraceful transactions. Pass this law: and that feeling is at an end. Men of a character very different from that of the present race of piratical booksellers will soon infringe this intolerable monopoly. Great masses of capital will be constantly employed in the violation of the law. Every art will be employed to evade legal pursuit; and the whole nation will be in the plot. On which side indeed should the public sympathy be when the question is whether some book as popular as Robinson Crusoe, or the Pilgrim's Progress shall be in every cottage, or whether it shall be confined to the libraries of the rich for the advantage of the great grandson of a bookseller who, a hundred years before, drove a hard bargain for the copyright with the author when in great distress?
The Digital Economy Bill is full of language designed to chill the self-publication that empowers authors online.
To me it most resembles the 1865 Locomotive Act, which attempted to protect the horse and carriage trade from meachanical locomotives by requiring that each one was preceded by a man on foot, 60 yards in front, carrying a red flag, and that speeds be limited to 4mph in the country and 2 mph in town.
The Digital Economy Bill, like the Locomotive Act, seeks to prevent what is in its title by constraining it to the limitations of pre-existing businesses that lobby the hardest. It should not pass.
- Digital Economy Bill the Final Countdown - last plea to MPs before wash up by Lilian Edwards
- Call Your MP
- Three reasons why the Digital Economy Bill will damage British biz and what to do about piracy
- BBC: Call for 'fuller' debate on Digital Economy Bill
- The Digital Economy Bill: Thinking further about copyright by JP