We have just seen widespread protests aginst the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act.
Proponents of these Acts claim that they want to encourage creativity by protecting the rights of authors, artists and musicians.
But copyright law is not about protecting authors, artists and musicians. It is, and always has been, all about protecting the income of publishers.
When printing presses arrived in England in the late 16th century, they created an industry. Printers soon wanted to prevent others from competing by printing the same books that they had published. So they convinced the government to bring in the Licencing Act of 1662, which gave a group of printers, called the Stationers’ Company, a near monopoly. The Licencing Act eventually lapsed and was replaced by the Statute of Anne in 1710. The Statute gave copyrights to authors, as well as printers, but it was of little benefit to them because they had to assign the copyright to a printer in order to get their work published.
Some printers and publishers have grown rich from their control of the transfer of the work of authors, artists and musicians to paper and plastic . But the age of mechanical publication has passed. Digital distribution does not need monopolistic publishers. The Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act.are merely attempts to maintain the old, dinosaur monopolies.
If it is beyond our wit to find some way, other than outdated copyright laws, to reward creativity, it would still be better to abolish copyright entirely than strive to keep it alive. Wouldn’t it be better to allow everyone in the world free access to all books rather than prop up a system which makes publishers rich, just so that the author might receive a pittance?
As Thomas Jefferson wrote: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them … incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."
In the Mechanical Age, governments encouraged free access to ideas through public libraries. We should be building the digital equivalent – not arguing about how to protect dinosaurs.