April, 2010

Digital Britain and the return of the Stationer's Company

Last week marked the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first true modern copyright law in the West, which was passed by the British Parliament in 1710. It established a copyright term of 14 years and, for the first time, brought the author on stage as the party in whom the right was vested, rather than the bookseller/printer who had dominated the trade both legally and commercially since Gutenberg’s time. The statute also made the term renewable for another 14 years if the author were still alive at the expiration of the initial period.

Last week also occasioned the passage in England of the Digital Economy Bill, which, for the first time, made ISPs legally liable for the actions of their subscribers and imposed on them an affirmative obligation to protect copyrights to which they are not party. The timing of the passage was surely a coincidence. It’s unlikely many in Parliament were aware of date’s significance.  But it presented a striking juxtaposition nonetheless.

Prior to 1710, the book and printing trade in Britain (they were one in the same) was controlled by the Stationer’s Company of London, a royally chartered corporation with the power to enforce crown-sanctioned publishing monopolies (also called patents), regulate the import of books and see to it that no “seditious” or otherwise “objectionable” books or pamphlets were printed within the kingdom. Read More »