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Three centuries of copyright law

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Three hundred years ago, on 10 April1710, the world’s first fully fledged copyright law entered intoforce — in Britain, of course. Its full title was “An Act for theEncouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books inthe Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times thereinmentioned”. But it is generally known simply as either theCopyright Act 1709, after the year in which it was enacted, or theStatute of Anne, after the Queen during whose reign it was enacted.

The Act replaced a monopoly that hadbeen granted to the Stationers’ Company in 1557. Under this system,members of the company would buy manuscripts from authors andthereafter enjoy a perpetual monopoly on the printing of the work.Authors were not allowed to join the company themselves and thereforecould not legally publish their own works. And there was no systemfor the payment of royalties to authors whose works sold well.

The preamble to the new Act made itclear why the legislation was deemed necessary: “Whereas Printers,Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken theLiberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing, or causing to bePrinted, Reprinted, and Published, Books, and other Writings, withoutthe Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings,to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them andtheir Families: For Preventing therefore such Practices for thefuture, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Writeuseful Books; . . .”

The new law gave the monopoly onreproduction of a work to its author rather than to its printer. Itcreated a 21-year term for works already in print and a 14-year termfor works published after its enactment. If the author was stillalive after 14 years, then a further 14-year period would be granted.

The Act also included measures toprevent publishers and booksellers from overcharging for books. Apanel of 12 senior clergymen, judges and academics was charged withconsidering complaints about unreasonable prices and was given thepower to limit the price of any book.

A further provision of the Act wasthat printers had to provide nine copies of each publication fordistribution to prestigious libraries across Britain.

Copyright legislation has come along way in the past 300 years. The 1709 Act went through a number ofamendments but endured until 1842, when it was repealed and replacedby a new Act. Then in 1886 a multinational “Conference of Powers”in Berne, Switzerland, adopted a convention that set out to harmonisethe regulation of copyright on literary and artistic works at aninternational level. The convention has been revised many times andhas now been adopted by most of the world’s nations.

The Berne Convention now states thatliterary works shall be protected for at least 50 years after thedeath of the author, but individual nations may extend that period ifthey so wish. In the UK, where copyright is now covered by theCopyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, protection continues until70 years after the author’s death — a period that in April 1710would no doubt have been beyond any author’s wildest dreams.

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