Monday, February 06, 2006

Macaulay on copyright

One of the unexpected pleasures of being a blogger is that people write and tell you stuff which you would otherwise never have known about. So I have to thank the novelist and blogger Christopher G. Moore for drawing my attention to a cogent speech on copyright which was made by Macaulay, in the House of Commons, in 1841.

This is a longish speech, but it is recommended for its sound analysis by no less an authority than David Vaver, Professor of Intellectual Property at the University of Oxford. That being the case, I had a look at it.

Macaulay was speaking to a proposal, put forward by Mr Serjeant Talfourd, to extend the term of copyright to 60 years, reckoned from the death of the writer. Copyright at that time was limited to 28 years from first publication, or for the rest of the author's life, whichever was longer.

Macaulay was firmly opposed to the new proposal. He argued that it was in the public interest that books of various kinds should be written; that rich men were unlikely, on the whole, to devote their time to literature; and that Parliament should therefore create financial incentives for authors by granting them copyright.

He went on to argue, however, that, copyright, even if necessary, was a form of monopoly, and that it carried with it many of the disadvantages of monopoly. He demonstrated, through a number of historical examples, the damage to the public interest which would arise if the proposal to extend the term of copyright were to become law.

Macaulay took the view -- and again he gave examples -- that it was extremely likely that, after an author's death, the new owner of the copyright would sell it, or that it might be passed on three or four times in 60 years, ultimately coming to be owned by someone, or some organisation, who had absolutely no connection with the original author at all. This new owner might suppress the work, to the public disadvantage; or, more likely, he would exploit it ruthlessly. The consequence of monopoly, Macaulay argued, is that goods become scarce, expensive, and bad.

The proposed changes in the law, declared Macaulay, would create thoroughly bad law. And bad laws are ignored and flouted.

Well, you are probably ahead of me on all this. You will know, if you are a long-time reader of this blog, that ownership of certain valuable copyrights in the UK has long since passed out of the hands of the heirs and successors of successful authors. Ownership has passed to companies set up specifically to buy, and to exploit to the absolute utmost, rights in books and other intellectual property which are seen as having long-term possibilities: Chorion being a prime example of such a company.

You will also know, through my references to the writings of such authors as Kembrew McLeod, that many of the larger media corporations are busy grabbing the rights to anything, no matter how apparently trivial, which can be used to generate revenue. This is a process which Macaulay foresaw, in principle, and which he was absolutely right in declaring to be contrary to the public interest.

Macaulay's speech, by the way, led to Mr Talfourd's bill being rejected by 45 votes to 38. But subsequently, by the simple expedient of bribing politicians (officially known as providing campaign funds), big companies have succeeded in getting the terms of copyright extended far beyond anything which is in the public's interest: or even, in my view, the interests of authors.

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