March 3, 2010

The Statute of Anne (was actually kinda revolutionary)

Category: Academic,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 4:17 am

Last night, in two different instances I read the claim that the England’s first copyright act, the statute of Anne passed in 1710 was never intended to protect authors but to protect the reproducers like printing houses and presses investing in authors implying that printing houses loved the act.

After pouring through hundreds of pages of Adrian John’s history of piracy, that statement is pretty off and in fact I don’t think the Statute was really about printers/booksellers or authors but the public.

While licensing had all together lapsed for a period before this statute was passed, and the printing houses and book sellers were indeed clamoring loudly for an official recognition of property in literary works, they wanted a perpetuall right in literary property rooted in common and natural law. Like I am talking here about forever, not like a measly, paltry 14 years.

They were not exactly thrilled at this statute (in fact, they were downright pissssssssed off) for it severely limited how long they held a property right over books. In fact, so pissed were they, they challenged the statute, went to court in 1769 (Millar v Taylor) and got what they wanted: a perpetual right to literary work.

It took s a fiery Scot and bookseller by the name of Alexander Donaldson (I kind of think of him as the RMS of booksellers; he was quite a rabble rouser) to challenge Millar and he finally got his day in the highest court of the land in 1774 in Donaldson v Beckett and the outcome was that a perpetual right in books was tossed out the window. The court ruled that copyright was a limited statute. One of the lords in the case even stated “”Knowledge has no value or use for the solitary owner: to be enjoyed it must be communicated.” Adrian John’s explains the significance of this case in the following way:

““Copyright, they decided, was not a right of man at all. Indeed, it was almost the very opposite: an artifact, and one that replaced a prior right established by an author’s work of creation. . . In terms of revolution principles, liberty won out over property”

Again the printers booksellers (minus the “pirate” ones) were not happy a bunch. Unfortunately the subsequent history is one we all know well, one in which booksellers and others with vested interests in copyrights pushed to extend property rights in all sorts of ways to get to where we are today (obviously with a lot of different historical developments), a land, time, period where perpetuity may not be forever but it is long enough to nullify the very public domain envisioned by the first copyright act.

However, I think it is nonetheless important to recognize how radical in many respects the first copyright act was: given what the book printers and sellers wanted (and they were a powerful bunch).

For those interested in learning more about Alexander Donaldson, I would check out his Some Thoughts on the State of Literary Property, where he rails against the London booksellers for being monopolistic and calling for a limited property right in books.


  1. Biella, you have reminded me of a party at my place ten years ago when Seth Schoen started a disquisition with an explanation of the Statute of Anne. It’s on my “learn more someday” list.

    Comment by Sumana Harihareswara — March 3, 2010 @ 6:15 am

  2. (Can’t wait to read “Piracy”!)

    I think the Statute of Anne is best characterized as a compromise between booksellers and Parliament. Consider what Parliament might have done instead: it could have simply passed a statutory per-word or per-page royalty rate, payable to the author, and let any bookseller print anything so long as they pay the rate. If the argument was that this new licensing was to provide authors with income, that would have sufficed.

    Yet Parliament did not do that. Instead, it restored the per-work monopoly that had (de facto) existed under the recently-expired licensing regime, but made sure the monopoly was temporary.

    This was a reflection of the already-established business structure and customs of the printers (which had arisen under the old censorship-based licensing system), and a recognition that the printers’ economic concerns were paramount. For authors, non-exclusive statutory royalties would have been fine. But for printers, that wouldn’t work — it would have led to a race to the bottom in both price and quality. Parliament understood this; hence the Statute of Anne.

    Millar v Taylor and Donaldson v Beckett came sixty years after the passing of the Statute of Anne, so the results in those cases cannot be taken as indicating much about Parliament’s motives in enacting the statute in the first place. But they do indicate that, having compromised, the printers would continue pressing for more monopoly. Sometimes they won (Millar), sometimes they lost (Donaldson, in a big way), and sometimes, er, they won again (copyright extensions in the U.S. over, say, the last thirty years :-) ).

    I think it might be more right to characterize Donaldson v Beckett as radical than the Statute of Anne itself. It’s true the Statute did not give booksellers the perpetual property right they wanted, but Parliament’s primary concerns were — as you say — about the public, not authors nor printers. Parliament wanted first of all to prevent the recurrence of a de facto censorship system, and secondly to ensure the sustenance of a healthy printing industry. Recognizing that those two desires were in conflict, they compromised, but the compromise was more between Parliament’s own conflicting goals than between what the booksellers wanted and what the public needed.

    Another way of saying it is: just because a law ticked off an interest group doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a radical change. The Statute of Anne was modeled (I think, though I’d like to see what Adrian Johns has to say about it in this book) on both the older “patent” formerly held by the company of Stationers and by the Stationers custom among themselves of honoring unofficial copyrights. Important, far-reaching, yes — but not necessarily radical.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — March 3, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  3. [...] The Statute of Anne (was actually kinda revolutinary) Last night, in two different instances I read the claim that the England’s first copyright act, the statute of Anne passed in 1710 was never intended to protect authors but to protect the reproducers like printing houses and presses investing in authors implying that printing houses loved the act. [...]

    Pingback by Links 5/3/2010: Elive Stable 2.0 Topaz, Canonical CEO Speaks | Boycott Novell — March 5, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

  4. Blawg Review #258…

    I was asked to write a Blawg Review celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Statute of Anne. It may instead be more appropriate to mourn its death. Obviously the Statute of Anne, having been put in force……

    Trackback by Statements of Interest — April 5, 2010 @ 3:41 am

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