Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The true history of copyright

One important argument to consider is that free speech depends on the public domain, that it requires the free exchange of ideas, and that those ideas are not the creations of geniuses who pull them with the help of divine inspiration out of their very souls for the good of the rest of mankind but, rather, that they are merely "discovered" by their "authors" within the collective culture we and all our ancestors have created. Thus, in the 18th Century
intellectuals had argued that the enlightenment was grounded on the free exchange of ideas — ideas that belonged to the world and not to the individuals who discovered them. This was a view eloquently expressed in 1776 by the marquis de Condorcet. Individuals could not own ideas as they did property, he argued. "There can be no relationship between property in ideas and that in a field, which can serve only one man. [Literary property] is not a property derived from the natural order ... It is not a true right, it is a privilege" [7]. As a consequence, copyright existed to protect the free exchange of ideas, not the rights of authors [8].

This view, however, was soon overwhelmed in 1788-89 by the Revolution. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the National Assembly officially sanctioned freedom of the press. Without effective copyright, the freedom was wild and destructive. Anonymous and seditious pamphlets appeared throughout the country; piracy of literary works was rampant; publishers faltered and became insolvent. Officials recognized the need to act, but they debated endlessly, ensnared by the politics of censorship in the midst of the Revolution’s turmoil [9].

As early as 1790, Condorcet himself cosponsored a proposal that provided copyright for the author’s life plus ten years. The proposal violated the principles Condorcet had declared just 14 years earlier, but he now had another goal in mind following the Revolution (to make authors accountable for what they wrote). His proposal did in fact place some limitations on literary property, but not surprisingly, these were widely criticized by the Paris Book Guild and the royally privileged theatre directors. Once again, they used author rights as their central argument [10]. The proposal never came to a vote.

Astonishingly, after the original sponsors departed, almost exactly the same measure was passed into law in 1793 without discussion, partially propelled by the revolutionary call to respect individual rights and property. French copyright law was a compromise: The law sanctioned the notion of literary property, yet it limited such property and created the notion of public domain. It gave something to those with corporate interests in literary property, but it also took something away. And during the nineteenth century those corporate interests worked steadily to take back whatever they had lost.

Some claim that French copyright law was born in the Revolution as droit d'auteur — author rights. But French copyright continued to change for one-hundred years following the Revolution (Ginsburg, 1990). What was initially an uneasy compromise between the philosophies of Diderot and Condorcet slowly became dominated by the notion of author and moral rights, until copyright became synonymous with droit d'auteur in France.

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