The entire modern copyright was built on one fundamental assumption that the Internet has reversed

Posted on Jan 10, 2017 by Rick Falkvinge

When copyright was reinstated in 1710, the justification was that of publishing being many orders of magnitude more expensive than authoring, and so without it, nothing would get published. But the Internet has reversed this assumption completely: publishing is now many orders of magnitude cheaper than writing the piece you want to publish.

The copyright monopoly, as we know, was created on May 4, 1557, when Queen Mary I introduced a complete censorship of dissenting political opinions and prevented them from being printed (and thus the “right to copy” was born as a privilege within a guild, by banning all wrongthinkers of the time from expressing ideas). This stands in contrast to France’s attempt at banning the printing press entirely by penalty of death in at least two aspects: One, England’s suppression was successful, and two, the suppression has survived (albeit mutating) to present day.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which is a point of pride in that no blood was shed (at least none that mattered to the history writers), people were really really really tired of the censorship, and wanted to end it promptly. Thus, the monopoly that was the foundation of copyright – the exclusive right to the London Company of Stationers to print anything in the country, in exchange for letting it pass by the Crown’s censors first – the monopoly of copyright was not renewed as the law required, and lapsed in 1695.

Yes, copyright ceased to exist in 1695, after having been in effect since 1557.

The post-revolution British parliament would have none of it.

The formerly very profitable print shops, having operated under a repressive monopoly upholding political censorship, though — they would petition Parliament again, and again, and again, to reinstate their lucrative monopoly, but to no end. Parliament just wouldn’t introduce something like it again. What’s really interesting here isn’t the fact that the printers gathered their families on the steps of Parliament to weep for bread to their children, but the arguments they used, and what didn’t happen:

First, they argued that nothing would get printed if they didn’t get their monopoly back, as they couldn’t make a profit. The extremely noteworthy part of the argument is that they didn’t argue nothing would get created – but that nothing would get printed.

Second, the authors had no interest whatsoever in this construct. The printers and publishers were the ones arguing for the monopoly, claiming to speak on behalf of authors, and presented the idea that authors should “own” their works and have such “ownership” transferrable by contract — knowing full well authors would have no choice but to sign their rights away to the previous vested interest.

The British Parliament bought this line of reasoning, unfortunately, sending us down 300 years (and counting) of suppression of speech by those who have most to profit from suppressing it. This date – the reinstatement of copyright on April 10, 1710 – this is what the copyright industry deceptively calls “the birth of modern copyright”, in an attempt to conceal or dissociate from copyright’s origin as political censorship.

The real meat here lies in understanding that the entire underlying assumption, and justification of this construct, was that publishing was far more expensive than writing. Setting up a print shop required considerable investment and labor in order to distribute works, whereas writing just required pen, paper, and time.

“Far from viewing copying as theft, authors [in 1700] generally regarded it as flattery. The bulk of creative work has always depended, then and now, on a diversity of funding sources: commissions, teaching jobs, grants or stipends, patronage, etc. The introduction of copyright did not change this situation. What it did was allow a particular business model — mass pressings with centralized distribution — to make a few lucky works available to a wider audience, at considerable profit to the distributors.” — Copyright historian Karl Fogel

The Internet has completely reversed this assumption. Thinking in terms of time required, the effort required to publish is now approximately the equivalent effort of writing a few words – here in WordPress, it involves moving the mouse to the upper right corner, placing the cursor over “Publish”, and pressing the left mouse button. Thus, we can observe the following:

Where the reintroduction of copyright – “modern” copyright – was justified by publishing being several orders of magnitude more expensive than authoring, the Internet has made publishing several orders of magnitude cheaper than authoring, completely reversing the original premise.

Of course, there will be no shortage of people who profit from an artificial limitation, once it is in place. You could easily argue today that X and Y must not change, because A and B profit from the status quo — and so, the copyright industry readily claims that so and so many thousand jobs are upheld (“created”) by this artificial and harmful limit. But really, what kind of an argument is that? Who has the right to prevent the passage of time because they benefit from a lack of change? This is effectively the copyright industry’s single argument today.

And that industry will let nothing stand in its way – in particular not civil liberties such as privacy. They have consistently tried to erode basic freedoms under the guise of preserving the status quo, when what they’re doing is denying our children the liberties that our parents had, such as the ability to send an anonymous letter to somebody.

Further reading: The surprising history of copyright, and the promise of a post-copyright world.

Privacy remains your own responsibility.

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  1. Gary

    Copyright protects my work from being sold without my consent. If I write a book or an article or a poem and someone gets access to it, my ownership of copyright prevents them from selling it. This allows me to be the one who profits from my labors. In an age where publishing is nearly instantaneous and nearly cost-free, my creative work is even more vulnerable to theft than before. I could labor for years writing a book, and without copyright protection, anyone who found themselves with access to it could take it and sell it, a theft of my labor that without copyright protection I would have no legal claim to.

    4 years ago
    1. Falkvinge

      No, property rights prevents your work from being sold without your consent.

      The copyright monopoly, however, stands in opposition to property rights as it also says you can’t create what you want from your own materials.

      As for the notion that the copyright monopoly has the slightest correlation with income to authors and creators, that has been thoroughly debunked over and over again – the monopoly’s slice of an average artist’s income is less than one per cent.

      It is, and was always, made for the distributors as a way to suppress creativity.

      4 years ago
      1. Gary

        My property rights, as regards my creative work, include both the actual work, like a drawing, for instance, and the exclusive right to reproduce that drawing. I worked for decades as an illustrator. I never sold the actual drawings, the property I sold was intellectual property; specifically, I sold limited and specific rights to copy my work. As far as my illustrations were concerned, I was the only one to monopolize their copyright, and the only one to see any financial gain by the enforcement of their copyright.

        4 years ago
  2. Trexxel Kiventith

    Copyright protects the author it says hey you know that poem you just wrote no one else can print it except you no one can put it someplace you don’t want it to be. How is that a bad thing.

    4 years ago
    1. Falkvinge

      The copyright monopoly does not, has never, and will never protect the author. It was not made for the authors’ benefit at all.

      I consider it a very bad thing that anybody and everybody takes themselves the right to invade my private communications to inspect that I don’t communicate anything they think I don’t have the right to communicate – because that’s what’s required to uphold this monopoly: a complete loss of private correspondence at the conceptual level.

      Once you sell a work, you have no further right to it, in all other markets. If a carpenter sold a chair, would you think it reasonable that said carpenter could _still_ determine how that chair could be used, merely on the basis of the carpenter having put it together first?

      In short, copyright has no place at all in any kind of modern society.

      4 years ago
  3. Dariusz G. Jagielski

    Another great article from a great man. I wish you would still publish on TF as well, though. Makes easier to track your great content.

    4 years ago
    1. Falkvinge

      Thanks! Yes, it’s mostly a bandwidth issue. I miss publishing on TF as well, but making and researching these articles takes a considerable time.

      4 years ago
      1. Dariusz G. Jagielski

        Well, after the article is done, it’s just a matter of copy-paste (a concept you’re familiar with ;)) into TF so article can be on both.

        4 years ago
  4. farmorgun

    It was Queen Anne, or have I get it all wrong.

    4 years ago
    1. Falkvinge

      Queen Anne reigned during the re-introduction of the copyright monopoly in 1710. Queen Mary I (preceding Queen Elizabeth) ruled in 1557, when it was first introduced.

      4 years ago