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Copyright: Why it exists

Newspapers, existing in part due to copyright law.
Newspapers, existing in part due to copyright law.
Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Our recent discussions on freedom of expression led to an article concerning whether an actor has a sufficient copyright interest in his own performance to block the release of a movie. This opened a new subject, copyright, which is worth some time between major political events. Copyright and copyright infringement have been hot issues in the digital internet age, when everything from essays to major motion pictures can be copied in minutes at no cost.

Originally, copyright law developed alongside printing, as a protection for the printing industry. The theory was that printers, whose business encompassed all that which we now distinguish as printers, publishers, and booksellers, spent a fair amount of money obtaining books, but that with the new technology anyone with a printing press could make and sell copies by copying the originals. There was an assumption that the authors who wrote the books were compensated by the printer for the right to print the book, who could then profit by selling as many copies as he wished; but that since obtaining the original was more expensive than copying a book someone else had already published, such copying was popular. Several concepts were explored, and by the early eighteenth century there were laws in place that gave the original publisher of the book exclusive publishing rights within a country for a period of years, sometimes renewable, and usually with protections against competitive imports.

This was a time when literacy was rising, and reading was both a primary form of entertainment and a conduit for public education. Governments wanted to encourage reading, and to do so they needed to encourage publishing: there had to be books. Gradually over the next century the right shifted, such that it was not the publisher but the writer who held the right to copy his own works, the "copy right", and gradually that right spread to artists, cartographers, poets, composers, filmmakers, and performers--creative arts of all sorts. The theory here was that creative works themselves had value to society, and if we were to have any such works the creative people who created them would need to be compensated. If I wrote a book, or a song, or recorded an album, and put my time and money into the effort, and then got nothing for my effort, I would be forced to abandon such creative endeavors and turn my attention to some form of labor that puts food on my table and pays my bills. Certainly the market's failure to make some work successful culls some of those from the creative efforts whose work is substandard; but if no one can "make a living" from creative efforts, everyone will be forced to abandon them save those who are independently wealthy and can pursue their creative impulses without regard for whether they are any good.

In order for that to work, we have copyright law, laws that say I cannot take your writing, or your music, or your artwork, without properly crediting and compensating you. If I read your book, or listen to your song, or put your painting on my web site, you deserve to be paid. If you do not think that my work is worth your money, then do not use it.

Of course, there are several models for how this can work. Here at The Examiner you do not pay to read the articles; but The Examiner pays its writers and collects revenue from advertisers. When you watch broadcast television in the United States, you do not pay for it; either you watch commercials which pay for the program in the hope that you will buy what they are selling, or you watch pledge drives asking you to support public television. (If you are in Great Britain, you do pay for broadcast television: it is funded by your tax money.) Yet there are some forms of copyrighted art that are being stolen today, taken without compensation, and it raises serious issues concerning what forms the future of creative enterprise will take.