This week we learnt about the origins of the book trade and intellectual property. We also looked at the impact of the internet on creativity and whether or not copyright law is fit for purpose in the digital age. The following is a reworking of some of the notes we were given and some additional thoughts.
I found it interesting that book selling and publishing were usually done by the same business until the 18th century. Then printing, publishing and book selling became separate businesses. Publishing companies such as Penguin, Macmillan, Gollancz and others became household names in the UK as books became increasingly affordable (partly due to Penguin’s publication of inexpensive paperbacks in the 1930s) and some high profile cases such as Penguin’s publication of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. And now we have the centralisation of publishing with a few huge companies – Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Elsevier etc – dominating the market.
It was also interesting to learn about William Hogarth (1697-1764) who was one of the earliest proponents of intellectual property after his prints were widely pirated. The 1734 Engravers’ Copyright Act, which he helped to bring about, allowed engravers the exclusive right to exploit their work commercially.
Print from The Harlot’s Progress by Hogarth, source: Ashley van Haeften, Flickr
The UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act dates from 1988. It means that if you register your work with the Intellectual Property Office you can reserve all rights in the copying of that work. Copyright law aims to give creators an incentive to work and also to protect their moral rights not to have their reputation damaged by unauthorised copying, alteration or misattribution of their work.
And yet in the digital age we are having to rethink copyright law. It is now so much easier to be a creator – to write blogs, make home movies, record music… And having to ask permission for every quote, sample or extract from another work is time consuming and potentially expensive. As Lessig argues in ‘Free Culture’, copyright feels like just another way that big corporations are staying rich at the expense of consumers and creators. In the case of academic research, whose right is it anyway to make money out of work that has been funded by the taxpayer? And can we really continue to copyright ‘works of the mind’ when the whole concept of an original idea is problematic in the first place?
Creative Commons Licences are a potential solution to the inflexible nature of copyright law. There are six different licences, all allowing consumers to share content but with varying restrictions. The most permissive only requires you to credit the creator. The most restrictive requires you not to make derivative works or to exploit the work commercially.
Copyright law is also trying to keep up with the times. In 2011 the Hargreaves review of IP and growth made a number of recommendations which resulted in some changes to the law in 2014. For example, it is now permissible to copy work for the purposes of parody.