Copyright: the deal is off!

It has taken the publishers and their lobbyists three-hundred-and-two years, but as of september 12, 2011 the social contract that legitimized our copyright laws has been nullified.

The Copyright Act of 1709 is generally seen as the basis for most of the copyright laws in effect today. Named after Anne, Queen of Great Britain, the Statute of Anne was the first copyright act to recognize that works of literature, science and art owe as much to their creators as they owe to the society that gave rise to those creations.

How many musicians would be able to write stunning music if they hadn’t been exposed to music their entire lives? Not many writers would be able to produce a decent novel if they had not been able to learn and read books for themselves. And what would be the value of educational books if the authors wouldn’t be able to cite scientific papers? If science and art would be allowed to be perpetually monopolized by a handful of publishers, it would be next to impossible to educate and inspire the next generations.

A fine balance…

Queen Anne recognized the rights of authors and publishers to protect the fruit of their labor, but she also recognized the rights of society as the ultimate source of all science and art. So in her wisdom, she ordered a Quid Pro Quo. Authors and publishers were granted a monopoly on their books for the duration of a maximum of 2 times 14 years. For existing books the limit was set at 21 years. After that protected period the work fell into the public domain, and society gained the right to copy. Thus, eventually all science and art would be returned to the well from which it had sprung, allowing the next generations to use that well as their source of knowledge and inspiration. Queen Anne struck a balance between the rights of artists and publishers to earn income from their labor and the rights of the public to a thriving and innovative culture.

…under constant pressure

Over the past three centuries the publishers have waged an extremely successful lobby to adjust that balance in their favor, step by step regaining the perpetual rights they enjoyed before Anne stepped in. Twenty-eight years became thirty, thirty turned into fifty years and yesterday fifty years morphed into seventy years.
And we can count ourselves lucky, because the publishers had initially lobbied the European Commission into a ninety-five (95!) year extension.

Against the spirit of the original deal, another twenty years, or a generation of recorded music will now be withheld from the public domain. Coming generations of musicians have just been locked out of an entire library of inspiration, from now on only to be used after paying prohibitive licensing fees.

The publishing industry, as well as wealthy and aged musicians of the past like Placido Domingo and Cliff Richard have applauded this final blow to the original copyright deal, comfortable in the knowledge that they can keep on selling at least another 20 greatest hits compilations. Their insistence that this deal is ‘fair’ because of the ‘higher life expectancy’ that musicians now have, misses the entire point that Queen Anne tried to accomplish. Copyright was a deal intended to foster culture and learning, not a state enforced retirement fund for rich ex-artists, refusing younger musicians the influences and inspiration they once enjoyed themselves.

No more deal

It is clear that the copyright deal is dead. The perpetual monopoly that Queen Anne sought to end in 1709 has practically been restored. From the public have been taken all the benefits which made the deal worthwhile to begin with; from a cultural perspective we are back in the late 17th century.

So where does that leave the public? The benefits are gone, and adding insult to injury, copyright lobbyists are actively forcing web-sniffing, packet-inspecting and blocking-technology upon society, willfully endangering basic human freedoms. What incentive, except the threat of massive litigation and draconian measures is there for the public to accept this farce of a copyright law? For how long will society put up with prohibitive fines and three-strikes legislation?

With the latest copyright extension, the EU may have dealt a deathblow to copyright. Internal enforcers like morals and ethics have been taken out; the only thing that copyright law still has going for it, is the empty threat of dire consequences.

Copyright law has lost its legitimacy; heavy-handed enforcement can only lead to uncomfortable questions about the validity of the underlying laws, and eventually copyright will be become a mere curiosity, not unlike the obligation for males to schedule in two hours of longbow practice each week.



Some of the reports the EC choose to ignore:

Gowers review (2006)

Hargreaves report (2011)



  1. Jan says:

    No, no copyright has been corrupted by the middleman, they have used the real legal power of the copyright holder in such a way that, except for them, everybody is loosing.

    No the copyright should stay and people holding it should rethink their easy way of signing away their rights.

    The copyright holder can give licenses to their own fans (home users) so that illegal downloading, and thus ACTA and 3strikes is not possible.

    So rethink the middleman’s rights instead of burying copy right law.

  2. Anonymous says:

    @jan New business models need to be adopted indeed, because the way both artists and consumers think about copyright needs to be updated, but that’s not the point of this article. The point is that people are prevented from freely consuming and using creative works, the copyrights of which for the most part benefit monopolitic companies and retired or creatively non-active artists. The balance between individual rights and a wealthy commonwealth has been disrupted, thus illegitimizing copyright itself and legitimizing civil disobedience to unjust law in the interest of the public. I also would like to talk about the false distinction between consumer and artist, but my battery is running low.

  3. Joke Mizée says:

    Hoe meer ik erover nadenk des te minder ik het snap. Het gaat toch om ‘naburige rechten’, dus van uitvoerenden, dus hoe kan het auteursrecht dan van toepassing zijn? (Men suggereert nl. dat oudere artiesten, zoals de ‘blazerssectie van de Beatles'(?), de rechten op hun eigen werk dreigen kwijt te raken.)

    Wat ook speelt is het auteursrecht van freelance journalisten, dat wordt behartigd door de Lira. Archiefinstellingen die krantenarchieven beschikbaar stellen moeten daar om die reden voor gaan dokken. Weet je daar toevallig ook wat meer over?

  4. […] further, and suggests that with such things, we've actually gone full circle and copyright law has become exactly what it was originally designed to stop. If you know your history of the Statute of Anne, one key goal of the system was to stop […]

  5. Victor says:

    Great article. 100% agree with you Dirk!

  6. […] kunnen fungeren als inspiratie voor nieuwe generaties liefhebbers en makers. Of zoals Dirk Poot het beschrijft: The Copyright Act of 1709 is generally seen as the basis for most of the copyright laws in effect […]