I was asked to write a Blawg Review celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Statute of Anne. It may instead be more appropriate to mourn its death.
Obviously the Statute of Anne, having been put in force 300 years ago, almost to this day, is no longer good law in any jurisdiction. In fact, almost immediately after it was enacted it began to be transformed. But it stands as a turning point in the history of English law-based systems by being the first true instance of copyright law as we’ve come to know it. Prior to the Statute of Anne, the privilege to publish was invested by the monarch in just a handful of companies who had an exclusive monopoly on all publication. Nothing could be printed that the Stationers’ Company and its select few brethren did not deign to print, and they were endowed with police powers to enforce their total control of the market for printed works.
Clearly such total power over the creation and dissemination of written works would cause a politically restless populace to bristle, and Parliament eventually acted to wrest the Royal Privilege to publish from this cabal and restore it to the population at large. It is thus bitterly ironic that today, almost exactly 300 years later, the English Parliament stands ready to do the exact opposite and restore total control over the creation and dissemination of work to a new generation of monopolists.
What makes it so ironic is, of course, what has long been forgotten: that the Statute of Anne was passed as “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.” The intent of the copy right it created was always to stimulate the dissemination of knowledge. Now, three hundred years later, we have the ultimate disseminator of knowledge: the Internet, yet in England — as well as countless other countries — copyright law is evolving to stop the spread of information — the exact opposite effect.
But its project has not yet succeeded, and the Internet is so far still able to provide a wealth of information, a small portion of which this Blawg Review will highlight as I explore the premise, promise and problems of the Statute of Anne and its legacy.
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