Copy Wars: Episode 1 – Where did copyright come from?

Statute_of_anneThis series reviews how copyright laws are evolving and ways that creators of original stories and art can survive in the world of One Continuous Media.

Episode 1

Compensation for work is the foundation of commerce and so fundamental to global society, that it’s difficult to imagine that this idea has only been in practice for a few thousand years. In fact, throughout most of recorded history, forced and uncompensated labor was fairly common for the average person. Monarchies and feudalism, some of which are still in force in some parts of the world, depend on labor that is only compensated by provisions for the barest means of survival.

The concept of copyright extended the role of compensation for labor into the realm of art and ideas. Because image creation and communications are our birthright as human beings, it has been quite a struggle throughout the centuries for writers and artists to convince the rest of the world that they should be compensated for what are essentially the physical representation of ideas. Hence the term, “intellectual property.”

After the printing press was invented in 1436, printers published as many varied books as they could, with little regard to attribution and no regard for compensation to the original author, many of whom were already long dead in any case. Similarly, in the art world, painter’s names often signified a style, what we might call a “brand.” Many times, dozens of different people would paint in that style, sign the painter’s name, and sell it for their own gain. Authenticity was simply insignificant.

It wasn’t until 1710 that the first copyright law emerged. The British Parliament issued “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned” – better known as the Statute of Anne, named for the Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland when the law was issued.

The basics of copyright protection for literary and artistic works evolved slowly by case law in each nation until the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works in 1886. This was a recognition of the international character of art and ideas that spread far from their country of origin if they are at all successful. The Berne Convention in Switzerland attempted to provide protection across borders and according to certain standards. The original eight countries who signed the Berne Convention were Switzerland, France, the U.K., Tunisia, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy, but since then it has grown to cover 162 out of the 190 recognized nations in the world.

Just as recognition of copyright laws have expanded, the definition of what counts as intellectual property has had to evolve with the pace of technology, to include sound recordings, photographs, films, videos, digital music, online games, and now apps and avatars. At the same time, technology is also making it effortless to copy and distribute art and written documents at a blinding speed and in parts of the world where laws have little significance.

Now we live in a copy and paste universe, in some ways similar to way life originated by combining and recombining single cellular functions. In fact, there is some pretty good evidence that life is an unfortunate byproduct of energy storage. In Part II, we will talk to an artist thriving through a metamodern remix.

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