Saturday, March 04, 2006

Digital Ethics #9

The 15th century was a time of immense intellectual and social change, and printing allowed the economic duplication and distribution of the ideas that fuelled it... especially by the fast-emerging group of religious rebels who were daring to question the Church of Rome’s teachings. In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Church at Wittenburg. Within weeks printing presses were running around the clock to spread its revolutionary message.

The power of 'pamphleting' wasn’t lost on the authorities of the time. England’s Treasons Act of 1534 reads:

‘If any person or persons... maliciously wish, will, or desire, by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the king's most royal person ... or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the king our sovereign lord should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant... [they] shall suffer such pains of death and other penalties, as is... accustomed in cases of high treason.’

In the same year Henry VIII instructed the Chancellor of the University of Cambridge to appoint three printers who could print and publish any books of which the Chancellor and three doctors approved. What is especially significant about this act is that it later formed the basis for the development of copyright law.

After attempting to control the spread of ideas, the ability to make money out of intellectual property entered the agenda. In 1547 Edward VI granted a monopoly to a group of approved printers to produce specific categories of material, with taxes (yep, 'royalties') being paid to the king for each item sold.

In 1556 the Stationers' Company was established by royal charter. It had a monopoly over printing and powers to enforce it, including the right to inspect a printer's operations and to act as customs officials to intercept trade in books. They took their jobs very seriously, using torture to gain confessions as well as executing traitors.

The ‘ownership’ of material continued to be in the hands of the ruling authorities, until the British Statute of Anne in 1710. This gave exclusive rights to authors rather than publishers, and it included provisions to prevent publishers controlling the work. It also limited the duration of such exclusive rights to 28 years, after which all works would pass into the public domain.

Now all of this is just scraping the surface of the discussion (just type ‘copyright’ into Google or Wikipedia, or visit Brendon Scott’s excellent article if you’ve got a lot of time on your hands). Suffice it to say that the modern arguments about the ‘rights’ of authors to gain recompense for the distribution of their work aren’t new, simple or very interesting.

In Digital Ethics #10 I’ll be taking a look at some historical examples of how people have pragmatically approached the distribution of their creative work.


andrewodom said...

great post! i find your ability to mix research with personal observation and comment to be very refreshing in a world of "blah, blah, blogging". i am a printer by trade (laser, large format, off-set lithography, etc) and deal with designers and intellectual property on a daily basis. it is very difficult to to understand the idea of intellectual property and the likes in our litigate happy society.

wouldn't it be great to share ideas without people being petrified that their idea was going to be stolen? after all...this opens up two great points. since when did we start caring so much about money and ownership that we lost site of simple sharing and "piggy backing" and when did we become so low that we would steal the thoughts of one man and try to profit off of them without giving due credit?

i am all of the sudden reminded of poor richards almanack!

brett jordan said...

Thanks for the warm comments Drew... I may steal your 'blah, blah, blogging' phrase :-)