COPYRIGHT #5 – Created by and for publishers?

The debate on the existence of copyright focuses on whether the content creators need state enforcement to enable owners to gain returns, or whether the producers of the works respond significantly to financial incentives. [1]  If there is a way to prove that authors (a widely defined term) do not need the intellectual property concept of copyright to earn a living, then we can truly question ourselves if is it necessary to continue with this concept.  By looking into the history of copyright, we can see that copyright might not be needed in order for creativity to flourish. Copyright was introduced in England in the sixteenth-century as outgrowth of the privatization of government censorship. It thus helped the publishing industry to conveniently earn money through mass pressings with centralized distribution. This helped a few lucky works to be available to a wide audience providing the publishers a considerable profit. Publishers from most types of creative works have fought not only to preserve the business model, but to build a belief into people’s minds; the belief that using somebody else’s creation is stealing, and that those creators can only survive with the benefits of copyright. Regardless of the historic period, we talk about two different concepts that help us understand this belief. – I steal when I take something from you, and you don’t have it anymore – In terms of creation, I cannot steal something from you, if I take it and then, we both have it –. Returning to the beginning of copyright in New England for the writers, it started out as a censorship law.[2] With the world’s first arrival of the press, writers, if anything, were energetic to know about this new resource to get their work widely known. The English government was concerned about too many works being produced, and more specifically, about which works were distributed out there to the citizens. They had to control what creators wanted to communicate; this was achieved through a royal filter directly connected to the emerged publisher’s industry of that time. The method the government chose was to establish an association of private sector censors called the London Company of Stationers. They were granted a royal monopoly over all printing in England that could control unauthorized presses, books and basically publish only what they wanted. This way, the organization a private strategic profit maker that acted as a tax collector. All members that entered as Stationers had the right to copy and distribute a written work; This law was intended for publishers and sellers, not for authors. New books entered under a company’s member’s name, not the author’s member’s name. [3] The strategy behind this, is that authors do not have the means to distribute their own works, and thus they always need a publisher’s cooperation to make their work generally available.  

In 1710, the first recognizable modern form of copyright took effect in England. The Stationers persuaded the Parliament that authors were the first one to own the rights to copy and distribute their creation, knowing that they had little option but to give those rights to the publishers since they were entirely dependent on them to succeed. At first, this option seemed great for the Stationers until time passed by and the Parliament didn’t contribute anymore to the monopoly of printing and publishing. In this crucial period of history of copyright, was when the force of the copyright turned to the authors and the offer of printers and publishers suddenly increased. The Stationers had no more bargaining power and the authors now could decide were to publish they works. The creators now had the rights to authorize the copy with whomever they wanted. The overall record of the story of copyrights clearly states that it was created by and for publishers. Even though authors were benefited at that time and it can be seen as a fair model from author to publisher, the consequences of this design has lead us to what we have today. Publishers are the ones that have pushed the government to create and modernize the copyright law, while that is the core of their business. Surprisingly, this is not the core business of a creator.

[3] “An Unhurried View of Copyright”, Benjamin Kaplan Columbia University Press, 1967, pp. 4-5.

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