History of Copyright Changes 1710-2013
A Position Paper by Rachel Calder, The Sayle Literary Agency
Changes to the law of copyright The Act, or Statute of Anne passed in 1710 was heralded as an ‘Act for the Encouragement of learned Men to compose and write useful Books’. It had replaced a system where the Stationers’ Company had a virtual monopoly on legal printing by issuing licences to printers that was designed to keep a tight control of the press. Early pressure for the right to prevent the copying of works came from printers and publishers and not writers who had no ways of organising themselves or lobbying for better terms. The 1710 Act gave an exclusive 14 year period to books registered with the Stationers’ Company, renewable for another 14 years if the writer still lived. One of the most important aspects of the Acts was not just the exclusive period but also that the grant of rights was assignable and could be passed to someone other than the writer or creator on terms to be agreed. The Act also gave the writer or copyright holder a right to redress should the copyright be misused or misappropriated. However, the main beneficiaries of this early Act was not usually the writers but the printers and booksellers to whom the rights were assigned, usually for an outright fee. In some cases, the writer even had to pay for the production and publication as well. If the title went on to be a runaway hit, the writer would not benefit again financially until the term of the licence expired and had to be renewed. The 1814 Act developed the term further to 28 years or the author’s lifespan, whichever was the longer and this was then lengthened further in the 1842 Act to 42 years or the author’s life plus 7 years, whichever was the greater. The international Berne Convention of 1886 (a document the USA did not become a signatory to another hundred years in 1989) agreed its term as the author’s life plus 50 years, forcing the subsequent 1911 Act to include the same minimum term. Now the term has settled at the author’s life plus 70 years.
The first Act in 1710 was devised for books and the book trade but throughout the 19th century the subsequent Acts widened the remit to include lectures, engravings, dramatic works and designs. The 20th century changes added cinema and broadcasting, computer programmes and games. The passing of each new Copyright Act followed years of heated debate about where the balance of benefit should lie, with the creators or the producers/distributors, with the writers or the book trade and wider industries. From a 21st century point of view, extending the term can look like a benefit for the creators but if the writer had to assign the title to the printer or bookseller for an outright fee, the common practise in the 19th century, the extended period is only of benefit to the producer of the book, not the creator. The balance between the individual and common good has always been delicate and it will remain so but history has shown that the legislation is flexible and up to the task and is constantly under review.
Although during the 18th and 19th centuries it was usually the booksellers, printers and publishers who made greater financial gains from the sale of books, creators and writers did eventually benefit too. The book trade and creative industries of the time lobbied Parliament and gained legal protection for the works they produced and invested in but it was really only in the 20th century that it became more common for contracts to include royalties for copies sold and percentage splits for rights sales. Being a literary agent myself, I like to think that it was the emergence of literary agents at the end of 19th century that ensured that writers, the original creators, were finally paid what was due to them but it is clear that this would have been impossible to achieve without the legislative framework to protect the creators’ work. Anyone who wants to know more about the historical perspective of copyright reform can read books and journal articles by several writers including Catherine Seville, John Feather, Mark Rose and Iain Stevenson.
Rachel Calder has worked in publishing for 30 years, the last 20 years as a literary agent at The Sayle Literary Agency. She is a Trustee of Writers’ Centre Norwich and Cambridge Wordfest, the city’s literary festival.