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Painting of Black Death from 1411. Copyright has expired.

History of Copyright, part 1: Black Death

33

Copyright Monopoly

Copyright Monopoly

In this seven-part series, I will look at the history of copyright from 1350 until present day. The story of the history books differs quite strongly from what you usually hear from the copyright industry.

We’re starting with the advent of the Black Death in Western Europe in the 1350s. Like all other places, Europe was hit hard: people fled westward from the Byzantine Empire and brought with them both the plague and scientific writings. It would take Europe 150 years to recover politically, economically and socially.

The religious institutions were the ones to recover the slowest. Not only were they hit hard because of the dense congregation of monks and nuns, but they were also the last to be repopulated, as parents needed every available child in the family’s economy, agriculture, et cetera, in the decades following the Plague.

This is relevant because monks and nuns were the ones making books in this time. When you wanted a book copied, you would go to a scribe at a monastery, and they would copy it for you. By hand. No copy would be perfect; every scribe would fix spelling and grammatical errors while making the copy, as well as introduce some new ones.

Also, since all scribes were employed (read controlled) by the Catholic Church, there was quite some limitation to what books would be produced. Not only was the monetary cost of a single book astronomical — one copy of The Bible required 170 calfskins or 300 sheepskins (!!) — but there was also a limit to what teachings would be reproduced by a person of the clergy. Nothing contradicting the Vatican was even remotely conceivable.

By 1450, the monasteries were still not repopulated, and the major cost of having a book copied was the services of the scribe, an undersupplied craft still in high demand. This puts things in proportion, given the astronomical cost of the raw materials and that they were a minor cost in ordering a book. In 1451, Gutenberg perfected the combination of the squeeze press, metal movable type, oil based print inks and block printing. At the same time, a new type of paper had been copied from the Chinese, a paper which was cheap to make and plentiful. This made scribecraft obsolete more or less overnight.

The printing press revolutionized society by creating the ability to spread information cheaply, quickly and accurately.

The Catholic Church, which had previously controlled all information (and particularly held a cornered market on the scarcity of information), went on a rampage. They could no longer control what information would be reproduced, could no longer control what people knew, and lobbied kings across Europe for a ban on this technology which wrestled control of the populace from them.

Many arguments were used to justify this effort, trying to win the hearts of the people for going back to the old order. One notable argument was “How will the monks get paid?”.

The Catholic Church would eventually fail in this endeavor, paving the way for the Renaissance and the Protestant movement, but not before much blood had been spilled in trying to prevent the accurate, cheap and quick distribution of ideas, knowledge and culture.

This attempt culminated in France on January 13, 1535, when a law was enacted at the request of the Catholic Church, a law which forced the closure of all bookshops and stipulated death penalty by hanging for anybody using a printing press.

This law was utterly ineffective. Pirate print shops lined the country’s borders like a pearl necklace and pirate literature poured into France through contraband distribution channels built by ordinary people hungry for more things to read.

Next: England and a vengeful daughter.

Sources: primarily Wikipedia, Question Copyright, and Flow of History.

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About The Author: Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. He has a tech entrepreneur background and loves whisky.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Falkvinge, lillebrorsan, David Olandersson, Andreas Karlsson, Razor and others. Razor said: Falkvinge: History of Copyright, part 1: Black Death http://bit.ly/f3DHb5 [...]

  2. 2
    Grå

    This is a minor detail and does not affect your major points. But the idea of correct spelling is hardly something that was practiced by the clergy of the middle ages. Most simply spelled like they heard the word. That made it very hard to read without at the same time pronounce the words out loud, or at least mumble. Many even spelled their own name different at different times. It was first with the printing press that a somewhat more standardized form of spelling would emerge.
    But many scribes of the middle ages could actually not read themselves. They simply copied the appearance of the letters. Such scribes also copied each error as well as made new ones.

    One last point is that the Catholic church of the middle ages hold very hard on its control. So much that it was forbidden by threat of excommunication or even execution to own a bible and read from a bible without the permission from the church. That was one of the reasons for the Albigensian Crusade and the medieval Inquisition that resulted in the genocide of the Cathars, as they had read the scriptures themselves and gotten their own ideas on how to interpret them.

    • 2.1
      Rick Falkvinge

      Thank you for the valuable addition! In particular, shining the light on capital punishment for reading the Bible — and thus, just getting the theoretical capability of questioning the Church — certainly puts the printing press and its disruption into perspective.

    • 2.2
      Luke

      This is slanderous mythology. The Church did forbid laymen in a small region from reading the Scriptures (for good reason), but it was never a universal or even widespread law, and never punishable by death. In reality, it was the Anglican sect that put anyone to death who even possessed a copy of the Scriptures, until they produced their own corrupt version (the King James Version) in 1611.

  3. 3
    Ben

    I started reading your blog last week, and I thoroughly enjoy what I’m reading. You offer some insightful points into an issue that is much larger than people realize. I look forward to reading your posts each day, keep it up.

  4. 4

    Rick, you have really found your calling. I will readily admit that I have not always approved of your actions as PL, but you are a truly brilliant “evangelist”! Kudos and keep up the excellent work!

  5. [...] Catholic Church, who tried to ban the printing press with increasingly harsh punishments, up to and including the death penalty for using a printing press to copy [...]

  6. 5
    chevron

    “[The Church] could no longer control what information would be reproduced, could no longer control what people knew, and lobbied kings across Europe for a ban on this technology which wrestled control of the populace from them.”

    This really is naive. Please do some research on the relationship between Church and State throughout Europe in the period; a divided Church was a threat to the unity of the state. Further, you need to appreciate that society overwhelmingly considered the Church to possess divine authority to preserve the Truth of the Christian gospel, and that kings ruled by the grace of God, and with the blessing of the Church, and had a grave duty to enforce God’s law for the good order of the People (this goes way back past Eusebius and Ambrose in the c4 to Biblical models). Applying your modern sensibilities in assessing such a culture is absolutely invalid.

    I’m not going to bore you with an essay here, but will simply state that printing was not controlled on account of the technology (all sides of the religious debate in the c16 became wonderfully adept at using cheap print for their propaganda wars.), but on account of “dangerous” views being disseminated en masse. You have only to look at 1520s Europe to see just how dangerous these views could be to not only Church and State but the general populace as well.

    • 5.1
      Luke

      Exactly. This wasn’t copyright, it was (righteous) censorship. It didn’t matter whether you had permission from (or even were) the creator of the writing. It only mattered whether the writing was heretical or blasphemous.

  7. 6

    great: The history of copyright from 1350 until present day [7 part series] http://bit.ly/fa7tIm via @liliansta

  8. 7

    RT @tebenas: great: The history of copyright from 1350 till present day 7 part series http://bit.ly/fa7tIm via @liliansta – @tropicodelisboa

  9. 9

    RT @joaoscatarino: RT @tebenas: great: The history of copyright from 1350 till present day 7 part series http://bit.ly/fa7tIm via @liliansta

  10. [...] 7-Part History of Copyright series (by Rick Falkvinge): [...]

  11. [...] Fonte: http://falkvinge.net/2011/02/01/history-of-copyright-part-1-black-death/ [...]

  12. [...] shared the concern of the Catholic Church over the printing press. The public’s ability to quickly distribute information en masse was [...]

  13. [...] share culture, and the people will win against the constrainers of liberties, just as happened at the start of this series, when people learned to read for themselves and toppled the Catholic [...]

  14. [...] also A History of the Copyright Monopoly. You've read the whole article. Why not subscribe to the RSS flow using your favorite reader, [...]

  15. 10
    yesthatkarim

    For those interested in the subject, I recommend James Burke’s “The Day the Universe Changed” Episode 4:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lumD7rzBGVM&feature=BFa&list=PL4324DE52DA58DA66

    If the Catholic Church “went on a rampage,” it was a reaction to Martin Luther and Protestantism, not merely a loss of control per se. Luther used the new technology MUCH more successfully than the Catholics. Turks were also printing and distributing the Qu’ran. This wasn’t merely a matter of political control – heresy was a question of whether you were going to spend eternity in heaven or in hell.

    The 1535 French law you cite was a reaction to the publication of the Bible in *French* — Protestants were big on the whole idea of publishing the Bible in a language ordinary people could actually read (instead of Latin).

    The Catholic Church is slagged off in this blog post, but it doesn’t get enough credit for being the Internet of its day: the repository of knowledge, maintainers of literacy, the hubs and networks by which information was transmitted (private mail services connecting churches), teaching and the propagation of information (universities founded by the church), etc. etc. Given this role, it’s only natural that the Church would only want to see *correct* (as they saw it) information propagated, much the way today’s TCP protocol has a checksum field. In the Church’s meatspace, paper-based medieval Internet, they looked at the publishers of heresy the way we look at hackers, spammers, and Internet scammers.

    Today we are very fastidious about making sure that we update our computers and smartphones with software that has ONLY come from manufacturer. The Catholic Church saw itself back then as the sole supplier of updates from The Manufacturer :-) and it is only natural that they shunned those who chose to “jailbreak” their minds, “root” their souls, or get their updates from somewhere other than The Authorized Source.

  16. [...] His­tory of Copy­right [Falkvinge on Infopol­icy] [...]

  17. [...] Fuente de la nota TwitterDiggFacebookDeliciousStumbleUpon [...]

  18. [...] History of copyright, part 1: Black Death (en español) [...]

  19. [...] History of copyright, part 1: Black Death (en español) [...]

  20. [...] History of copyright, part 1: Black Death (en español) [...]

  21. [...] History of copyright, part 1: Black Death (en español) [...]

  22. […] geopolitically important to aggressively push its monopolies onto other countries, as described in The History of Copyright. More specifically, the United States ratified international copyright monopolies on March 1, […]

  23. […] geopolitically important to aggressively push its monopolies onto other countries, as described in The History of Copyright. More specifically, the United States ratified international copyright monopolies on March 1, […]

  24. […] geopolitically important to aggressively push its monopolies onto other countries, as described in The History of Copyright. More specifically, the United States ratified international copyright monopolies on March 1, […]

  25. […] find an involuntary guest post, by Falkvinge, a short history of copyright. You can also follow this link and click through his seven […]

  26. […] (on a side note regarding the fact that intellectual property is a modern construct, check out Swedish Pirate Party’s Falkvinge’s excellent series on the History of Copyrigh…) […]

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