William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1595. The play was first published in 1597. It was the eleventh major play that Shakespeare had written. He would continue to write plays through 1613, and the plays that he wrote have continued to define Anglo-American culture ever since. So deeply have the works of a sixteenth-century writer seeped into our culture that we often don't even recognize their source. I once overheard someone commenting on Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of Henry V: “I liked it, but Shakespeare is so full of clichés.”
In 1774, almost 180 years after Romeo and Juliet was written, the “copy-right” for the work was still thought by many to be the exclusive right of a single London publisher, Jacob Tonson.
Now, there's something puzzling about the year 1774 to anyone who knows a little about copyright law. The better-known year in the history of copyright is 1710, the year that the British Parliament adopted the first “copyright” act. Known as the Statute of Anne, the act stated that all published works would get a copyright term of fourteen years, renewable once if the author was alive, and that all works already published by 1710 would get a single term of twenty-one additional years.
The reason is that the English hadn't yet agreed on what a “copyright” was - indeed, no one had. At the time the English passed the Statute of Anne, there was no other legislation governing copyrights. The last law regulating publishers, the Licensing Act of 1662, had expired in 1695. That law gave publishers a monopoly over publishing, as a way to make it easier for the Crown to control what was published. But after it expired, there was no positive law that said that the publishers, or “Stationers,” had an exclusive right to print books.
There was no positive law, but that didn't mean that there was no law. The Anglo-American legal tradition looks to both the words of legislatures and the words of judges to know the rules that are to govern how people are to behave. We call the words from legislatures “positive law.” We call the words from judges “common law.” The common law sets the background against which legislatures legislate; the legislature, ordinarily, can trump that background only if it passes a law to displace it. And so the real question after the licensing statutes had expired was whether the common law protected a copyright, independent of any positive law.
This question was important to the publishers, or “booksellers,” as they were called, because there was growing competition from foreign publishers. The Scottish, in particular, were increasingly publishing and exporting books to England. That competition reduced the profits of the Conger, which reacted by demanding that Parliament pass a law to again give them exclusive control over publishing. That demand ultimately resulted in the Statute of Anne.
The Statute of Anne granted the author or “proprietor” of a book an exclusive right to print that book. In an important limitation, however, and to the horror of the booksellers, the law gave the bookseller that right for a limited term. At the end of that term, the copyright “expired,” and the work would then be free and could be published by anyone. Or so the legislature is thought to have believed.
Now, the thing to puzzle about for a moment is this: Why would Parliament limit the exclusive right? Not why would they limit it to the particular limit they set, but why would they limit the right at all?}
For the booksellers, and the authors whom they represented, had a very strong claim. Take Romeo and Juliet as an example: That play was written by Shakespeare. It was his genius that brought it into the world. He didn't take anybody's property when he created this play (that's a controversial claim, but never mind), and by his creating this play, he didn't make it any harder for others to craft a play. So why is it that the law would ever allow someone else to come along and take Shakespeare's play without his, or his estate's, permission? What reason is there to allow someone else to “steal” Shakespeare's work?
The answer comes in two parts. We first need to see something special about the notion of “copyright” that existed at the time of the Statute of Anne. Second, we have to see something important about “booksellers.”
First, about copyright. In the last three hundred years, we have come to apply the concept of “copyright” ever more broadly. But in 1710, it wasn't so much a concept as it was a very particular right. The copyright was born as a very specific set of restrictions: It forbade others from reprinting a book. In 1710, the “copy-right” was a right to use a particular machine to replicate a particular work. It did not go beyond that very narrow right. It did not control any more generally how a work could be used. Today the right includes a large collection of restrictions on the freedom of others: It grants the author the exclusive right to copy, the exclusive right to distribute, the exclusive right to perform, and so on.
So, for example, even if the copyright to Shakespeare's works were perpetual, all that would have meant under the original meaning of the term was that no one could reprint Shakespeare's work without the permission of the Shakespeare estate. It would not have controlled anything, for example, about how the work could be performed, whether the work could be translated, or whether Kenneth Branagh would be allowed to make his films. The “copy-right” was only an exclusive right to print - no less, of course, but also no more.
Even that limited right was viewed with skepticism by the British. They had had a long and ugly experience with “exclusive rights,” especially “exclusive rights” granted by the Crown. The English had fought a civil war in part about the Crown's practice of handing out monopolies - especially monopolies for works that already existed. King Henry VIII granted a patent to print the Bible and a monopoly to Darcy to print playing cards. The English Parliament began to fight back against this power of the Crown. In 1656, it passed the Statute of Monopolies, limiting monopolies to patents for new inventions. And by 1710, Parliament was eager to deal with the growing monopoly in publishing.
Thus the “copy-right,” when viewed as a monopoly right, was naturally viewed as a right that should be limited. (However convincing the claim that “it's my property, and I should have it forever,” try sounding convincing when uttering, “It's my monopoly, and I should have it forever.”) The state would protect the exclusive right, but only so long as it benefited society. The British saw the harms from special-interest favors; they passed a law to stop them.
Second, about booksellers. It wasn't just that the copyright was a monopoly. It was also that it was a monopoly held by the booksellers. Booksellers sound quaint and harmless to us. They were not viewed as harmless in seventeenth-century England. Members of the Conger were increasingly seen as monopolists of the worst kind - tools of the Crown's repression, selling the liberty of England to guarantee themselves a monopoly profit. The attacks against these monopolists were harsh: Milton described them as “old patentees and monopolizers in the trade of book-selling”; they were “men who do not therefore labour in an honest profession to which learning is indetted.”
Many believed the power the booksellers exercised over the spread of knowledge was harming that spread, just at the time the Enlightenment was teaching the importance of education and knowledge spread generally. The idea that knowledge should be free was a hallmark of the time, and these powerful commercial interests were interfering with that idea.
To balance this power, Parliament decided to increase competition among booksellers, and the simplest way to do that was to spread the wealth of valuable books. Parliament therefore limited the term of copyrights, and thereby guaranteed that valuable books would become open to any publisher to publish after a limited time. Thus the setting of the term for existing works to just twenty-one years was a compromise to fight the power of the booksellers. The limitation on terms was an indirect way to assure competition among publishers, and thus the construction and spread of culture.
When 1731 (1710 + 21) came along, however, the booksellers were getting anxious. They saw the consequences of more competition, and like every competitor, they didn't like them. At first booksellers simply ignored the Statute of Anne, continuing to insist on the perpetual right to control publication. But in 1735 and 1737, they tried to persuade Parliament to extend their terms. Twenty-one years was not enough, they said; they needed more time.
Parliament rejected their requests. As one pamphleteer put it, in words that echo today,
I see no Reason for granting a further Term now, which will not hold as well for granting it again and again, as often as the Old ones Expire; so that should this Bill pass, it will in Effect be establishing a perpetual Monopoly, a Thing deservedly odious in the Eye of the Law; it will be a great Cramp to Trade, a Discouragement to Learning, no Benefit to the Authors, but a general Tax on the Publick; and all this only to increase the private Gain of the Booksellers."
Having failed in Parliament, the publishers turned to the courts in a series of cases. Their argument was simple and direct: The Statute of Anne gave authors certain protections through positive law, but those protections were not intended as replacements for the common law. Instead, they were intended simply to supplement the common law. Under common law, it was already wrong to take another person's creative “property” and use it without his permission. The Statute of Anne, the booksellers argued, didn't change that. Therefore, just because the protections of the Statute of Anne expired, that didn't mean the protections of the common law expired: Under the common law they had the right to ban the publication of a book, even if its Statute of Anne copyright had expired. This, they argued, was the only way to protect authors.
This was a clever argument, and one that had the support of some of the leading jurists of the day. It also displayed extraordinary chutzpah. Until then, as law professor Raymond Patterson has put it, “The publishers ... had as much concern for authors as a cattle rancher has for cattle.”
The booksellers' argument was not accepted without a fight. The hero of this fight was a Scottish bookseller named Alexander Donaldson.
Donaldson was an outsider to the London Conger. He began his career in Edinburgh in 1750. The focus of his business was inexpensive reprints “of standard works whose copyright term had expired,” at least under the Statute of Anne.
When the London booksellers tried to shut down Donaldson's shop in Scotland, he responded by moving his shop to London, where he sold inexpensive editions “of the most popular English books, in defiance of the supposed common law right of Literary Property.”
The London booksellers quickly brought suit to block “piracy” like Donaldson's. A number of actions were successful against the “pirates,” the most important early victory being Millar v. Taylor.
Millar was a bookseller who in 1729 had purchased the rights to James Thomson's poem “The Seasons.” Millar complied with the requirements of the Statute of Anne, and therefore received the full protection of the statute. After the term of copyright ended, Robert Taylor began printing a competing volume. Millar sued, claiming a perpetual common law right, the Statute of Anne notwithstanding.
Astonishingly to modern lawyers, one of the greatest judges in English history, Lord Mansfield, agreed with the booksellers. Whatever protection the Statute of Anne gave booksellers, it did not, he held, extinguish any common law right. The question was whether the common law would protect the author against subsequent “pirates.” Mansfield's answer was yes: The common law would bar Taylor from reprinting Thomson's poem without Millar's permission. That common law rule thus effectively gave the booksellers a perpetual right to control the publication of any book assigned to them.
Considered as a matter of abstract justice - reasoning as if justice were just a matter of logical deduction from first principles - Mansfield's conclusion might make some sense. But what it ignored was the larger issue that Parliament had struggled with in 1710: How best to limit the monopoly power of publishers? Parliament's strategy was to offer a term for existing works that was long enough to buy peace in 1710, but short enough to assure that culture would pass into competition within a reasonable period of time. Within twenty-one years, Parliament believed, Britain would mature from the controlled culture that the Crown coveted to the free culture that we inherited.
The fight to defend the limits of the Statute of Anne was not to end there, however, and it is here that Donaldson enters the mix.
Millar died soon after his victory, so his case was not appealed. His estate sold Thomson's poems to a syndicate of printers that included Thomas Beckett.
As few legal cases ever do, Donaldson v. Beckett drew an enormous amount of attention throughout Britain. Donaldson's lawyers argued that whatever rights may have existed under the common law, the Statute of Anne terminated those rights. After passage of the Statute of Anne, the only legal protection for an exclusive right to control publication came from that statute. Thus, they argued, after the term specified in the Statute of Anne expired, works that had been protected by the statute were no longer protected.
The House of Lords was an odd institution. Legal questions were presented to the House and voted upon first by the “law lords,” members of special legal distinction who functioned much like the Justices in our Supreme Court. Then, after the law lords voted, the House of Lords generally voted.
The reports about the law lords' votes are mixed. On some counts, it looks as if perpetual copyright prevailed. But there is no ambiguity about how the House of Lords voted as whole. By a two-to-one majority (22 to 11) they voted to reject the idea of perpetual copyrights. Whatever one's understanding of the common law, now a copyright was fixed for a limited time, after which the work protected by copyright passed into the public domain.
“The public domain.” Before the case of Donaldson v. Beckett, there was no clear idea of a public domain in England. Before 1774, there was a strong argument that common law copyrights were perpetual. After 1774, the public domain was born. For the first time in Anglo- American history, the legal control over creative works expired, and the greatest works in English history - including those of Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Johnson, and Bunyan - were free of legal restraint.
It is hard for us to imagine, but this decision by the House of Lords fueled an extraordinarily popular and political reaction. In Scotland, where most of the “pirate publishers” did their work, people celebrated the decision in the streets. As the Edinburgh Advertiser reported, “No private cause has so much engrossed the attention of the public, and none has been tried before the House of Lords in the decision of which so many individuals were interested.” “Great rejoicing in Edinburgh upon victory over literary property: bonfires and illuminations.”
In London, however, at least among publishers, the reaction was equally strong in the opposite direction. The Morning Chronicle reported:
By the above decision ... near 200,000 pounds worth of what was honestly purchased at public sale, and which was yesterday thought property is now reduced to nothing. The Booksellers of London and Westminster, many of whom sold estates and houses to purchase Copy-right, are in a manner ruined, and those who after many years industry thought they had acquired a competency to provide for their families now find themselves without a shilling to devise to their successors."
“Ruined” is a bit of an exaggeration. But it is not an exaggeration to say that the change was profound. The decision of the House of Lords meant that the booksellers could no longer control how culture in England would grow and develop. Culture in England was thereafter free. Not in the sense that copyrights would not be respected, for of course, for a limited time after a work was published, the bookseller had an exclusive right to control the publication of that book. And not in the sense that books could be stolen, for even after a copyright expired, you still had to buy the book from someone. But free in the sense that the culture and its growth would no longer be controlled by a small group of publishers. As every free market does, this free market of free culture would grow as the consumers and producers chose. English culture would develop as the many English readers chose to let it develop - chose in the books they bought and wrote; chose in the memes they repeated and endorsed. Chose in a competitive context, not a context in which the choices about what culture is available to people and how they get access to it are made by the few despite the wishes of the many.
At least, this was the rule in a world where the Parliament is anti-monopoly, resistant to the protectionist pleas of publishers. In a world where the Parliament is more pliant, free culture would be less protected.
License: Free Culture is Licensed under a Creative Commons License. This License permits non-commercial use of this work, so long as attribution is given. For more information about the license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/1.0/
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