Letter on copyright

On the continuing relevance of copyright in the digital age

For BBC Radio "The Business", 2010

April 11th, 2010Stephen Mayes

It’s reassuring that even in this regulated world that thought is free, and if you like my ideas or if I like yours there is no practical control on sharing these thoughts around. But as soon as I express an idea – in language, in imagery or in song – that expression becomes a copyright property owned and controlled by the author. The principle is centuries old.

It’s three hundred years in fact since the Statute of Anne was introduced in England to give authors the right to control the distribution of their work, which was previously controlled exclusively by the guilds that owned the printing presses, the prevalent means of distribution of the time. Copy right as a property belonging to the author rather than the distributor came into being with the intent of promoting access to knowledge; the model appeared to work and has been replicated around the world in the three hundred years since 1710.

It might seem strange that in 2010 as we adjust to the modern information revolution wrought by the Internet it is time to revisit and reinforce this ancient principle. Maybe it’s unorthodox to make a parallel between the interests of autocratic eighteenth Century print guilds and the modern democracy of the Internet, but the parallel exists. Once again in the 21st Century it is the distributors, today anyone with an Internet connection, who feel that they should have an unchallenged right to distribute work on their terms without regard for the interests of the authors. Information is plentiful, it’s regarded as free and beyond regulation. Music, movies, photos and anything that can be enjoyed online is regarded as common property belonging to us all and we are developing a cultural habit of copying and sharing without restraint. The billions of people sharing interesting information on the Internet are light years away from the elite controlling print guilds if the seventeenth Century, but the principle is uncannily similar: once again the distributors think that they own the information and have exclusive right to manage its distribution.

But it’s not so simple – ideas might be free but the expression is not. It takes skill and effort to convert an idea into a work, whether that be an essay, a song, a photo or a painting. And that skill deserves recognition and reward.

While it’s true that copyright can be used as a means of censorship and control, most authors are anxious to have their work distributed and the point is not about restraint of information as much as recognition and of course reward for the hard work of authorship.

This is more than a feel-good plea to be nice to original thinkers, artists and other creatives. Aside from the philosophical benefit of managing the context for information and tracing the lineage of ideas, the very practical point is about rewarding authorship, without which authors starve, or more likely cease to output. And without authors (meaning writers, musicians and artists of all sorts) our culture withers, shrinking to embrace the low common denominators of copyists, imitators and other regressive non-original publishers.

Copyright has no choice but to adapt in the 21st Century as new technology brings new cultural practices, just as the printing press did 500 years ago or the phonograph did 150 years ago. But the tried and tested benefits of rewarding authors for original work from Milton to Eminem still retains a value. That value can be misconstrued as a monitory price, which is certainly important when an author wants to put bread on the table, but more importantly it’s a matter of recognition and respect – respect for ideas which will remain free but which will vanish unless their expression is appreciated and properly rewarded.

It’s time to rethink, but not to forget. Copyright is as relevant now as it has ever been.