Friday, April 17, 2009

What Did Copyright Mean in 1710?

One of the strangest elements in the judgment made today against The Pirate Bay was the comments by Horace Engdahl, speaking as the permanent secretary for the Swedish Academy on the national broadcaster's Culture News this evening.

Engdahl spoke of the fact that authors prior to the Statute of Anne, the first copyright law in effect, were forced to live from patrons. "Writers were forced to know power and know the great in the society ." When asked if the time prior to 1710 was a 'pirate time' that was also very creative, that also had its good side, Engdahl replied "Jag förstår inte vad dem göda tider skulle har bestod. Det var helt enkelt bara kaos. En tjuvarnas marknad" ("I don't understand what those good times would have been. It was quote simply chaos. A market of thieves").

That he is the spokesperson for the Swedish Academy (founded 1786) supplies these observations with an extra dimension of relevancy. The ordered system of language and culture which the academy attempts to enforce, its mission of "Talent and Taste" ("Snille och Smak" in Swedish) is a long way from the cultural free for all which The Pirate Bay apparently represents (although may not live up to) today.

I join with literary critic Thomas Götselius and further dispute the idea that "It was quite simply chaos" before the Charter of Anne came into being. Having read the essays and articles of Steele and Addison I have gained some impression of the London of the early Georgians. It was a vibrant time of great creativity and experimentation. As a course description at the University of Sussex states:

However it is described, the 150 years (1600-1742) covered have some claim to be the decisive period in the creation of what we think of as modern politics. It is also a period of astonishing literary creativity. This is true both in terms of the volume, variety and quality of writing produced, and in terms of radical innovations in styles, in readerships, and in media. It also encompasses the growth of a powerful female authorship and readership.

Prior to the Charter of Anne it may well have been a free for all. For the majority of writer's, life was probably harsh, with no guarantees for survival, let along readership. But looking at the diary of Samuel Pepys for the 1660s there seemed to be a fair number of booksellers about, where they all pirates?

Booksellers Pepys mentions by name

Name/location/when Pepys’s 1st mentions:

— St. Paul’s Churchyard, later Duck Lane; mentioned ONCE, 1667 (@ Duck Lane)

— New Exchange; 1667

— St. Paul’s Churchyard; 1660

— Temple Bar; 1668

— Westminster Hall; 1660

— Cambridge; mentioned ONCE in 1660

— Inner Temple; 1660

— At The Bible on Duck Lane; 1668

— St. Paul’s Churchyard, later on Fleet Street when Pepys mentions him; 1667

— L&M Index volume

The digital media environment is far from the pamphlet stalls in St. Paul's yard. But the lack of center in both is perhaps what is causing such anxiety for the Swedish Academy and its like (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, L'Académie française). Putting the genie back in the bottle is not an option. The courts can only postpone this shift in representative technologies for so long. Long term solutions need to be developed if we are going to harness the creative energies of these new (well not so really new) media.

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