, , , , , , , , ,

In our fourth LAPIS issue of term, we discussed the often thorny issue of intellectual property law and how it fits into the library and publishing sectors. The principle of copyright—the aspect of intellectual property that is most likely to be of relevance to librarians—dates back to when the development of the printing press and related technology made the mass copying of authors’ works feasible; prior to this, works had to be copied out manually by professional scribes, which was a laborious and accepted part of the publishing process.

In the United Kingdom, copyright law dates back to 1735, with the implementation of the Engravers’ Copyright Act, which conferred exclusive usage rights on the author of the engraving for a period of fourteen years. It also recognised and codified the distinction between the intellectual work of the creator of the engraving, and the physical labour of the craftsmen who carried out the engraving process itself. The contemporary record of the law makes it clear that its purpose is to incentivise the production of intellectual content:

An act for the encouragement of the arts of deſigning, engraving, and etching hiſtorical and other prints, by veſting the properties thereof in the inventors and engravers, during the time therein mentioned.

The Engravers' Copyright Act (1735) was sponsored by William Hogarth, the renowned artist and engraver who was a prominent victim of unauthorised copying.  Much of his work carries a strong moral message, including this scene from A Rake's Progress (also published in print form in 1735).

The Engravers’ Copyright Act was sponsored by William Hogarth, the renowned artist and engraver who was a prominent victim of unauthorised copying. Much of his work carries a strong moral message, including this scene from A Rake’s Progress (also published in print form in 1735).

Over the following centuries, this copyright principle was extended to cover all forms of intellectual and artistic authorial works, and in general the framework of laws, in the United Kingdom and in other countries, held together. Yet the advent of the current digital age has posed significant challenges to this model, as the interconnectedness of the Internet combined with ever-advancing computer technology has made it much more simple to copy, modify and disseminate these works. Moreover, the very nature of digital technology raises its own questions: is a digital file in itself a copy of something else? Do multiple different saved versions of the same document (perhaps backed up automatically by the author’s own computer) count as copies? And so forth. Often this is not done for any commercial gain, and the creation of another copy, although technically piracy, can be said (for example, by legal scholar Stefan Larsson) to differ from “theft” as the creation of a copy does not remove the original. Overall, the gradual extension of copyright, in the forms of “all rights reserved”, to include all published works by default is incompatible with contemporary socio-cultural norms driven by technological progress, as argued by theorists such as Lawrence Lessig, and alternative models are needed to prevent creativity and entrepreneurship from stagnating due to unnecessary and unworkable restrictions.

The most successful alternative copyright model has proven to be Creative Commons, a non-profit organisation founded by Lessig in 2001 to offer a range of licensing alternatives to the default option of “all rights reserved”. Creative Commons licenses offer a range of options to content producers, all based around the core principal of attribution, whilst allowing people to make use of this content without needing to ask the author’s permission every time, thus removing an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and helping to foster a more creative environment. The principles of Creative Commons are summed up in the organisation’s original signature video:

Creative Commons has been extremely successful, and is used by a variety of companies and organisations, including the WhiteHouse.gov, Al-Jazeera, Google, Wikipedia and Flickr. If you look at the bottom right-hand corner of this blog, you can see that its original contents are licensed under the Creative Commons, which produces handy graphics, links and HTML snippets for authors (like me!) who produce Web-based content.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

It should be borne in mind that Creative Commons is intended to complement traditional copyright laws, not to supersede them. In the United Kingdom, copyright law continues to be modified as the digital ages poses new challenges: in 2014, for instance, the rules concerning the making of personal copies for private use and the making of derivative works including quotations and for parody were relaxed.

Copyright is a particularly tricky subject for libraries, which need to balance respecting the law, encouraging authors to produce information, and facilitating unrestricted access to this information. British public libraries pay authors, via the Treasury, royalties for books that are circulated to their authors, illustrators and other contributors through the Public Lending Right scheme, but this has faced challenges in recent years, due to both technology changes in the form of e-books, and the fact that many public libraries are now community-run following recent government expenditure cuts. We can but hope that updating the legal framework, as Creative Commons has proved it is possible to do for freely-licensed works, will help libraries to continue providing satisfactory user access to information.