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Origin of Copyright Law in the English Language

Updated on August 31, 2011

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was a driving force behind the first English copyright law.
Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was a driving force behind the first English copyright law.

When Intellectual Property was Born

People commit crimes out of instinct. Acts such as theft, rape and murder occur because of base emotions or needs we have: need for security, desire to reproduce, overwhelming anger. However, on the same note people have an instinctive sense of morality concerning these crimes. We know that theft, rape and murder violate social expectations, and we react to this knowledge with guilt.

Not all crimes follow that pattern. Some laws are entirely artificial, and breaking them doesn't immediately lead to a clear question of morality. These crimes must be thought out and knowingly executed because they can't occur in the "heat of the moment." Perhaps the most well-known and widely discussed example of this is copyright law, otherwise known as protection of intellectual property.

Intellectual property has spawned a furious debate. The law spells out clearly what can and cannot be done with books, music, movies, artwork, etc., but these cases still hang up courts because there is nothing inherently immoral about sharing art. People continue to break copyright law, and artists and distributors continue to prosecute.

This lack of moral reasoning troubles proponents of strict copyright enforcement. They find it difficult to draw a line between acceptable sharing among friends and depriving an artist of income. They find it necessary to merge copyright infringement with a dissimilar crime that does affect our conscience; stealing. Although stealing deprives the original owner of the use of property while copying does not, copyright enforcers have campaigned to blur the line between the two since they first passed the laws.

By modern definitions of intellectual property, every monk in Medieval Europe through the year 1710 can be labeled a pirate or an accessory to piracy. In the Middle Ages, the idea that an author owned a work would have been inappropriate. Many manuscripts found from that time have no markings of authorship at all. In fact, scribes identified works as their own more than authors did--not out of desire to steal credit for the authors' works, but to advertise their handwriting to other potential employers. And since distribution was slow, laborious, and spread far from the authors' homes, their names disappeared while their works--and their scribes--lived on. Monks copied books often without knowing--or caring--who first wrote it, and readers read it the same.

The printing press, of course, changed distribution methods, which sent the scribal method on the path to extinction. The medievals considered writing a tool for propagating ideas, but because of the length of time involved in copying and distributing, the only ideas suitable were long-term, mostly religious works. With the printing press, tens of thousands of pages could be printed and distributed across a nation in the same time it took to copy one book. People used this change to discuss more disposable ideas, such as current politics.

It goes without saying that Freedom of the Press hadn't been invented yet--they needed to invent the press first. The government, notably the English Parliament, found itself fighting a losing battle against a plague of authors criticizing their rule. Lawmakers sought to punish people for authoring political pamphlets, but couldn't trace the writing back to the authors.

On some occasions, however, an author became vocal enough about his own beliefs that the government took note. In the late 1690s, the English Parliament reprimanded the author Daniel Defoe for a critical pamphlet he published. Defoe, unwilling to relent his opinions, began secretly publishing more criticism without his name. He wrote in a different style to avoid suspicion.

But the government found him anyway, and Defoe spent time in jail.

During his jail term, Defoe came to the conclusion that if an author could be punished for what he wrote, then he should be allowed to profit from it as well or he would have no incentive to write. Upon his release, Defoe began a decade-long campaign, writing to parliament requesting legislation that protected an author's right to profit. However, the parliament couldn't care less about authors' profits. They wanted to halt writing altogether, not protect the writers.

Over time, though, Defoe persuaded them that by granting protection, they could simultaneously offer incentive for authors to register their work under their true names. Because they would have to provide their names to receive protection, the government could easily trace back seditious writing to the proper source.

Parliament passed the first English copyright law in 1710. They did not intend to protect authors from copyists, scribes and pirates, which had been the social norm since the birth of writing. Instead, this law helped prosecute authors who displeased the politicians.

Daniel Defoe rested well under intellectual property laws, however. Today he is known best for writing Robinson Crusoe, which he published in 1719. The book is widely considered to be the first English language novel. The ultimate effect of Defoe's legislation shifted emphases from the spread of political ideas to fiction and entertainment, and in the twenty-first century we still apply copyright protection to these areas more than news, political commentary and non-fiction.

Preface to Robinson Crusoe

In his preface to Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe relates his justification for intellectual property.
In his preface to Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe relates his justification for intellectual property. | Source


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    • profile image

      Lynn S. Murphy 6 years ago

      Very interesting and thought provoking. I totally enjoyed it!

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 6 years ago from new jersey

      my husband and i were just discussing this topic this morning! great hub

    • Tracy Robinson profile image

      Tracy Robinson 6 years ago from Mauk, Georgia

      Good article. Like your style.

    • profile image

      6 years ago

      ...then there is the King James Bible: it's Crown Copyright over in England but not in the US...

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      This is indeed an interesting Hub. So many people do not know about or respect copyrights. Learning about the history and creation of Copyright Law is fascinating.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 6 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      very interesting hub. Thanks for sharing!