Karl Fogel: Copyright is not about subsidizing creators, it is about subsidizing distributors.

Around 1700, political changes caused the government to loosen its control over the press. No longer desiring strong censorship, the government decided to allow the Stationers’ monopoly to expire. This was a direct economic threat to the Stationers’ monopoly-based livelihood, and they responded by proposing a compromise: they argued that authors have a “natural right” of ownership in their works, and that furthermore this right could be transferred to others by contract. The placement of original ownership with the author was a smart political ploy, by which the Stationers avoided charges that they were attempting to resurrect the old (and unpopular) monopoly mechanisms. But the stipulation that these new copyrights were a form of property, and therefore transferrable, showed the real motive behind their proposal. The Stationers correctly foresaw that authors would need to transfer copyright to a publisher as an inducement to print, and that therefore the publishers’ position would about the same as it had been before. Indeed, their hand would be strengthened, because now the exclusive “ownership” of a work would now be based on well-established property law, instead of the temporary whim of the government.

The Stationers managed to persuade Parliament, and the result was the Statute of Anne: a copyright law created by the publishing industry, for the benefit of the publishing industry, and modeled on a defunct censorship system. The closest the Stationers ever came to talking about copyright’s benefit to society was in arguing that they could not afford to print books (and thus encourage authors to write books) without protection against competition. Why books were to be considered different from other kinds of goods was never satisfactorily explained — one is left with the distinct impression of a monopoly-softened trade group in a panic at suddenly being asked to survive without special protections.

All this is a far cry from what the copyright lobby wants you to believe. There was no uprising of writers, clamoring counterintuitively for the right to prevent people from copying their works. The writers themselves never really participated in the debate around the creation of copyright. The argument was crafted and presented by publishers.

Copyright is not about subsidizing creators, it is about subsidizing distributors.

  • Karl Fogel