The History of Copyright as Property

Elsewhere, in the 2nd of a 3 part essay on propaganda and the copyright, I discussed the myth and history of copyright as “property”, and have since recommended that the most appropriate term is “intellectual monopoly right.” However in looking at the new wordpirates site that attempts to “reclaim” various words in the contemporary discourse, I’d caution against claiming that the term “property” has only recently arrived to the discussion. Shortly after the issuance of the Statute of Ann (1710), often referenced as the first copyright law, we can see debates invoking the concept of property. In Donaldson v. Beckett, Proceedings in the Lords (1774), one can note:

”… he then dwelt much upon the sense of the word ‘property,’ defining it philosophically, and in the separate lights of being corporeal and spiritual; the term Literary Property, he in a manner laughed at, as signifying nothing but what was of too abstruse and chimerical a nature to be defined.”

”… Was learning encouraged by depriving learned men of a property they had for a perpetuity, and vesting it in them for a term of years only? The supposition was absurd; and yet if the Act by some certain privileges not enjoyed before, did not encourage learning, a statute of the legislature was suffered to be published with a direct falshood for its imprimatur…”

”… what property can a man have in ideas? whilst he keeps them to himself they are his own, when he publishes them they are his no longer. If I take water from the ocean it is mine, if I pour it back it is mine no longer.”

Discussions on the character of the limited monopolies of copyright and patent have historically relied upon “property” for comparison, but did not yield to equivelance. The balance has been that these monopoly rights, granted for the advancement of learning, is in some ways like property and in someways not. This understanding of difference and balance is what has been lost in contemporary discourse. Simply ignoring something is much more effective than the coercive pirating of it, as demonstrated when Eisner (of Disney) had to resort to an out of context quotation from Abe Lincoln, while ignoring the elegant sense of balance from another president, founding father, and head of the U.S. patent office, Thomas Jefferson:

”… That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation....”

Ported/Archived Responses

susan torrence on 2003-11-03

i need to find out the history on my home , where shall i look ? to find deaths births and other interesting facts - its a 1947 home and i know lots has happen here- thanks if you can help

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