Happy birthday, dear Copyright, happy birthday to you.

Three hundred years ago, today, Copyright was born.

Conceived in 1709 the Statute of Anne, as it is sometimes known, came into force on 10th April 1710. Despite going by the nickname of Copyright Act 1709 it was born with the much grander appellation: ‘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’.

Taking another look at that impressive title, we can imagine how the ‘parents’ intended for their product to develop. If they had been cursed with considerable foresight, and saw how Copyright grew-up and developed I believe they would be as horrified as those of us who can see Copyright for the monster it has become.

If we try and draw a parallel between the Statute of Anne (Anne) and recent Copyright legislation, including the Copyright Designs and Patent Act 1988 (CDPA1988) and the Digital Economy Act 2010 (DEAct) we can see a stark difference in their intent.

Anne speaks about ‘encouragement of learning’, breaking the monopoly held by publishers, a 14+14 year protection limitation, and fines for infringment were to be split between the Crown and the author. The very central tenet of Anne was to create a mutually beneficial system between creators and the public that would encourage creativity by giving short-term protections to commercial exploitation whilst ensuring that the very creations themselves would become the free public property of society (public domain).

Contrast this with the language of more recent legislation:

  • In the CDPA1988 protection terms are extended in some cases to 70 years after the death of an author – anyone finding me a dead author who is encouraged to further creativity by this length a term wins a prize.
  • When we come to educational provisions (Remember, Anne was an act for the encouragement of learning) the CDPA 1988 makes the following provision ‘reprographic copying is only permitted within the limit of 1% of the work per three-month period’ and ‘Works may be performed in educational establishments without infringing copyright, provided that no members of the public are present (s. 34): the parents of pupils are considered members of the public’

So who does get excused from ‘respecting’ these new Copyright laws? The CDPA1988 states that ‘Copyright is not infringed by anything done for the purposes of parliamentary or judicial proceedings’. Should we be surprised? Those that have been accused en masse of dishonesty and even theft (expenses) have unfettered parliamentary rights to ignore copyright, and at the same time they point their fingers and accuse others of stealing.

With the technology turning the world on its head, it is important to understand Copyright in the digital age, but when we look at the 2010 Digital Economy Act what we see is a gross misunderstanding from Parliament of (i) the technology, and (ii) the original purpose of Copyright acts. Instead of following Anne in breaking the destructive monopoly of the publishers, vast swathes of the DEAct 2010 were in fact written by those very entities.

So here we are, looking at disastrous new legislation, so how can we pay homage and respect to the original intentions of Copyright on this the 300th birthday? Instinctively we might wish to gather and sing Happy Birthday, but even that simple act is now fraught with difficulties and Copyright implications. Were we to try and do this publicly, we’d either need a licence to do so, or we would risk breaking the law.

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