How did copyright come about?
The first copyright Act of Parliament dates back as far as the 18th century to the Statute of Anne in 1709. The concept of protecting a work from being copied and sold by other people though is even older.
This can be traced back to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. It was at this point in history that a greater emphasis was placed on the notion of protecting your work, as a small number of people began using, printing and selling copies of other people's work in large amounts and selling them for a profit. Through the Statute of Anne, writers could choose who to allow to copy their work, for a period of 14 years. They could decide what to charge for the copies and choose their own printers.
As well as providing a greater level of control, copyright law had another effect. By having a set of legal rules controlled by parliament, authors and other creative people could be rewarded for their creative time spent, (what today's copyright law calls “labour and skill”) in ways like a wage or a salary. This gave them an income to put towards the day to day cost of living, and time to spend on being more creative.
While the UK focussed on the right to copy or “copy-right”, other countries like Germany or France took a more philosophical approach. There it was regarded as a human right and the process of creating something original like a book or a poem was seen as an act inspired by God.
Both of these legal statutes, the Urheberrechtsgesetz in Germany and the Droit d’auteur in France, literally mean “authors’ rights” or “rights of the author”.
There are, however, unifying standards such as those set out in the Berne Convention of 1886 which means that copyright works are protected in law regardless of whether they leave the country they originated in. If a work by a French author was illegally copied here in the UK for example, UK courts would protect the rights of the French author in the same way as for a UK citizen. The idea of the Berne Convention came from the famous French author Victor Hugo (author of 'Les Miserables') and can be said to derive from the French school of thought of author’s rights.
Signatory countries of the Berne Convention are effectively working in partnership across the globe to protect copyright when it leaves its home borders. This is probably even more important today in our global internet age than it was in 1886 when it was created. For more information on copyright outside the UK, visit the World Intellectual Property Organisation.
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