Thursday, October 06, 2005

Then and now: copyright law benefits publishers

Edward Rothstein: Defoe and Addison were demanding such consideration at a time, like ours, of great technological and cultural change. In their London, the right to "copy" or publish any book was held not by the author, but by members of the Stationers' Company - booksellers and printers who held a monopoly on that right in perpetuity - something that must have seemed reasonable just after the introduction of the printing press and the considerable expenses needed to print, distribute and sell a book to the small percentage of literate citizens.

But that guild's monopoly inspired dissent, and here, too, the objections sound familiar. The poet John Milton called the Stationers "monopolizers in the trade of book-selling" who do not "labour in an honest profession."

Things haven't changed that much.

But this time, there is an important difference. When a breakdown of control over patents and copyrights is championed today, it is imagined not as a triumph for authors (as was initially the case in the 18th century) or as a triumph for profiteers or national ambitions (as in the industrial espionage of the 19th) but as a form of liberation: The ideology has changed.

The authors still don't benefit. Encouraging progress is more directed to encouraging the disseminators rather than the originators.

But take a few steps back, and you can hear the firings of ideological muskets. Traditional arguments over public good and private rights have taken a turn; this time, idealism confronts materialism, socialism confronts capitalism, beliefs about communal virtue confront conceptions of individualism.

Karl Marx survived the Berlin Wall and moved to Stanford?


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