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What is the Point of Copyright History?

Copyright history has long been a subject of intense and contested enquiry. Historical narratives about the early development of copyright were first prominently mobilised in eighteenth century British legal discourse, during the so-called Battle of the Booksellers between Scottish and London publishers. The two landmark copyright decisions of that time – Millar v. Taylor (1769) and Donaldson v. Becket (1774) – continue to provoke debate today. The orthodox reading of Millar and Donaldson presents copyright as a natural proprietary right at common law inherent in authors. Revisionist accounts dispute that traditional analysis. These conflicting perspectives have, once again, become the subject of critical scrutiny with the publication of Copyright at Common Law in 1774 by Prof Tomas Gomez-Arostegui in 2014, in the Connecticut Law Review ((2014) 47 Conn. L. Rev. 1) and as a CREATe Working Paper (No. 2014/16, 3 November 2014).

Taking Prof Gomez-Arostegui’s extraordinary work in this area as a point of departure, Dr Elena Cooper and Professor Ronan Deazley (then both academics at CREATe) organised an event, held at the University of Glasgow on 26th and 27th March 2015, to consider the interplay between copyright history and contemporary copyright policy. Is Donaldson still relevant, and, if so, why? What justificatory goals are served by historical investigation, and what might be learned from the history of the history of copyright? Does the study of copyright history still have any currency within an evidence-based policy context that is increasingly preoccupied with economic impact analysis?

Screenshot from 2015-02-18 14:32:06The event began with a public lecture on the evening of 26th March 2015, delivered by Prof Gomez-Arostegui. This was followed by an international Symposium held on 27th March 2015, structured as a roundtable discussion on the implications of Gomez-Arostegui’s work, chaired by Prof. Hector MacQueen (Edinburgh Law School). This included panel responses from five distinguished academics:

A CREATe Working Paper published in 2016 and edited by Dr Elena Cooper and Ronan Deazley provides a lasting record of these discussions, including an editorial introduction, written comments by each of the panelists and Prof. Gomez-Arostegui and an edited transcript of the Symposium debate.

Downloadable Resources

Audio from the Symposium

Prof. Gomez-Arostegui’s Talk

Q&A session begins at 54 minutes.

Working Papers

Copyright at Common Law in 1774
CREATe Working Paper 2014/16 (3 November 2014)
H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui (2014), (57 pages)
More details and abstract
What is the Point of Copyright History? Reflections on Copyright at Common Law in 1774 by H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui
CREATe Working Paper 2016/04 (16 March 2016)
Elena Cooper and Ronan Deazley (Eds), (88 pages)
More details and abstract


Further Information

More about copyright history, and the cases of Millar v. Taylor (1769) and Donaldson v. Becket (1774), can be found in the CREATe supported on-line resource, Primary Sources on Copyright History, (1450-1900), eds. L. Bently and M. Kretschmer (


Citation Information

Please cite this online resource as: E. Cooper and R. Deazley, eds, What is the Point of Copyright History? (