“Authors are only motivated to write if they know their rights will be protected.”
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
The second of these quotes, from Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” is very familiar, I think, and demonstrably false. Indeed, even Boswell acknowledged its falsity as he recorded it, and attributed the comment to Johnson’s “indolent disposition.” The first quote comes from this fascinating article in the online version of the German magazine “Der Spiegel” reporting research that suggests that German’s 19th century industrial expansion may have been at least partially driven by the absence of strong copyright protection.
That authors must have strong copyright protection in order to create is presented in this article as a conventional belief, the kind of thing that everybody knows and accepts as a matter of course. Such bromides are almost always false, like Johnson’s remark, or at least incomplete. Perhaps the greatest value of the Spiegel article, short as it is, is that it demonstrates that a complex situation, such as the cultural impact of printing, copyright and the distribution of books, cannot be reduced to truisms. Complex analysis is required, and Eckhard Hoffner’s research is an example of such analysis.
Hoffner’s discussion suggests two major points to me, both of which contradict the received wisdom about why we need ever-stronger copyright protection.
First, he shows that copyright was never really a great benefit for the majority of authors. The point that an obscure scientist in copyright-free Germany actually earned greater royalties for his book on leather tanning than Mary Shelley did for “Frankenstein” debunks the economic side of the claim that copyright is always a benefit to authors. But it is even more important to recognize, as the article puts it, that “the prospect of a wide readership motivated scientists in particular to publish the results of their research.” Impact and reputation, then as now, were a major motivation for publication, and the higher prices that were made possible by copyright protection often inhibited those sought-after benefits.
Second, it is important to recognize that the real beneficiaries of strong copyright protection have always been intermediaries, as well as a few best-selling authors. Its history in England shows that authors’ well-being was used as a campaigning point by publishers seeking copyright protection, but that it was the publishers themselves who reaped the real rewards, as they always intended. Copyright, Hoffner shows, depressed competition and allowed publishers to make a great deal of money while inhibiting the dissemination of books and knowledge. The irony is that it is only in recent years, as the role of intermediaries has diminished due to digital dissemination, that we can seriously look to a future where copyright protection might be reined in for the overall benefit of learning.
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For help deciding whether course content in Blackboard or some other digital form is fair use or requires copyright permission, consult this policy document adopted by the Academic Council in February 2008.
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