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

Letterpress background, close up of many old, random metal letters with copy space

When the copyright monopoly 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, the copyright monopoly 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 the copyright monopoly – the “modern” copyright monopoly – 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.

Syndicated article
This article was previously published at Private Internet Access.

Rick Falkvinge

Rick is the founder of the first Pirate Party and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. He works as Head of Privacy at the no-log VPN provider Private Internet Access; with his other 40 hours, he's developing an enterprise grade bitcoin wallet and HR system for activism.

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  1. Penelope

    Interesting facts! Amazing!

  2. Politiekman

    This is not an argument against upholding copyright, precisely because it does not discuss the status quo. For which reasons copyright was or wasn’t introduced a couple of centuries ago, holds to relevance today.

    As a content creator (copywriter and YouTuber), I like copyright. I agree it needs to be reformed, but the protection of one’s work is a good thing. Precisely because publishing is now cheaper than authoring, there needs to be a mechanism in place to prevent people from taking my work and presenting it as their own. Although my work requires a lot of investment (time) to create, to steal and republish it as one’s own would take a mere few clicks. Thus, for someone looking to make a quick buck, setting up a website consisting of copy-pasted articles found throughout the Internet is more attractive than sitting down and investing hours of research and writing to produce a single article or video.

    This is why I like copyright. Although I choose to publish almost all my videos under a Creative Commons license (thus allowing re-use), I still like to have some control. For instance, the Creative Commons license I use allows re-use under two conditions: proper attribution of myself as the author, and ‘share alike’ (so anyone who uses my content must also use a Creative Commons license). This prevents the above scenario of somebody stealing my content and passing it off as their own.

    When somebody invests time and labour into creating something – anything – it should be up to the creator to decide how this will be used. Copyright is a good way to protect the creator’s rights to control the use of their product. As stated, I do believe copyright laws are outdated and need revision, but to completely abolish copyright would stifle creation by limiting creator’s ability to make a living off of their work.

    1. Rick Falkvinge

      I think there can be little doubt that a law that privileges certain people indeed gain the favor of those so privileged. But a law affects the whole of society, and not just a subset; money and privileges do not come from a vacuum, but have impacts elsewhere.

      It is the purpose of the law to create a better whole. The copyright justification – the modern justification – is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts (a direct quote from the US constitution). Specifically, its purpose is not to reward creators, neither to award creators control.

      In other words, the purpose is to make more culture available to the masses on one hand, and to promote the creation of even more culture on the other hand. This was the London Company of Stationers’ argument toward the British Parliament in 1695-1709 – that nothing would get printed without a distribution monopoly, copyright, in continuation. They argued that the monopoly was required to make culture available.

      When this monopoly instead awards lock-in functionality, it has become counterproductive – radically so. If, and who, makes a “quick buck” on recycling production is entirely secondary: the industries where copying is rampant since there’s no protectionism, like fashion, have a radically higher rate of innovation.

      And that’s the purpose as stated today. Rate of innovation. Not control, and not remuneration.

      I’m posting a followup article in three days which further addresses the unacceptable costs to society of pretending this privilege emerges from a vacuum.


  3. Kevin Hawkins

    Could you say more about the copyright industry’s efforts to erode the ability to send anonymous letters? I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

    1. kleiner tensorgraagt

      It’s rather simple really. They need to monitor everything to catch copyright infringement. You can’t find all copyright infringement if you don’t open and read all letters because people could then paste copyrighted material in their private letters and avoid getting caught. You can send mixtape over the postal service. Would need to open and read all letters to bust possible copies from books or other copyrighted material.

  4. lingamuncha

    Hey Rick. I agree with almost everything you write (as usual) including viewing copying as flattery (as long as there is no intent of plagiarism or impersonation).

    BUT. It is also cheaper than ever to publish crap and to get other people associated with crap – anonymously. In my experience people in general care so many more percent about image than about substance and for as long as that is so, our strategy will most likely not succeed.

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