Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)
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ï»ż Methodology

Information norms (and in particular the laws of intellectual property) are constitutive of modern societies. An understanding of the sources of these norms is critical to understanding the scope and direction of current laws.


Document Selection

There is considerable consensus among scholars as to the key points in the intellectual history of copyright law: Invention of printing press (c. 1450); printing privileges (Venice 1469; imperial fairs c16-c17); stationers’ companies (Basel 1531; London 1557); first statutes (England 1710; US 1790); the Enlightenment reprinting debate (“battle of the booksellers”; Diderot; Kant; Fichte); author rights (France 1791/1793; Prussia 1837; UK 1842); Berne Convention (1886). However, there is great controversy about the journey these points mark.

Under one interpretation, a teleological story is told, unfolding from the dark beginnings of privileges to the full recognition of author rights. Under another interpretation, there is an ever-increasing appropriation of the intellectual commons through commercial interests, only briefly interrupted by the public interest rationale asserted in Donaldson v. Becket (1774) and the US Constitution (1787).


Our methodology aims to select documents under three criteria:

  • (1) Documents that open up alternative interpretations of copyright history

    Particular national copyright laws have come to be associated with distinct philosophical traditions: the US and UK are said to be ‘public interest’-oriented, or utilitarian; France and Germany are regarded as author centric, reflecting deontological philosophical ideas (personality, natural rights). We are interested in documents that affirm, and contradict, these presentations.

    Examples include:

    Locke had argued against a natural rights approach to copyright in his critique of publishers’ demands after the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695. However, in Millar v. Taylor (1769), William Murray (later Lord Mansfield) applies a Lockean (“labour theory”) approach to literary property.

    Diderot (who also translated Locke) adopted a genius based justification in his Lettre historique et politique adressée à un magistrat sur le commerce de la librairie (1763). There are different versions of this pamphlet which was commissioned and published by the Paris Guild.

    Le Chapelier’s report introducing the 1791 decree is always quoted with the same line: (‘la plus sacrĂ©e, la plus personelle de toutes les propriĂ©tĂ©s’). This only referred to unpublished works. The rest of the speech emphasises the public interest.

    For the editorial comments on such documents, we are particularly interested in bibliographic references that evidence early occurrences of particular interpretations.

  • (2) Documents that illustrate interaction of copyright laws with commercial and aesthetic developments

    We are interested in documents that say something about the way in which the law reacted to, and also affected, social circumstances and practices (including technological change, commercial practices and aesthetic practices).

    For example: while some legal systems might imagine themselves as establishing a priori categories (eg ‘toutes les beaux arts’), we are interested in documents that indicate when and how those a priori notions were disrupted, contested, reformulated (eg responses to photography in France, at least according to Bernard Edelman). This reflects a more general interest in finding documents that indicate the social conditions that inform the history of copyright. In the UK and the US, the influence of social, technological and economic change may be more obvious, because of the law’s incremental, and reactive development (until 1911).

    We are also interested in documents that indicate the impact of copyright regulation on particular creators or publishers (eg DĂŒrer, Hogarth, Beaumarchais, Bourget, Hugo, Weber/Schlesinger, Wordsworth).

  • (3) Documents that evidence influences across jurisdictions

    Copyright histories are often told as if national systems remained hermetically sealed from one another (Sherman & Bently, The Making of Modern Intellectual Property, ch. 11). So we have a British history, a French history etc. We are interested in documents that indicate influence from outside the particular nations. For example, we are interested in evidence that the Venetian privileges constituted a model for licensing systems in France, Germany, England etc, or evidence that suggests there was no such influence (each country independently coming up with the same idea of regulation). Assuming that there was influence, we are interested in documents which tells us about how certain legal systems became models for others.

    Examples include: Kant’s 1785 essay, conceiving of books as a ‘speech to the audience’ responded to the literary property debate surrounding Donaldson (1774). The US federal Act of 1790 copies many provisions verbatim from the 1710 Statute of Anne, but added a prominent protection for maps and charts (which played an important part in the development of the continent). Prior to the Prussian 1837 Act and the UK 1842 Act, drafts were exchanged and commented upon between the two countries.

    We are also interested in documents that indicate the development of national self-consciousness, or national images of copyright. When, where, and how did French, US, German, Italian and UK commentators start to articulate their national laws as different from those of other nations (with different histories, philosophies, functions, concepts etc)?


    Bibliographical approach

    Each selected document is introduced by an Abstract, and catalogued according to international library standards, as well as a bibliographical template specifically designed for this project that creates the following browsable categories: referred persons, places, institutions, legislation, case law and 140 subject matter keywords.


    The Abstract should contain:

    (i) Identity of document: This should effectively indicate the type of document (case, legislation, petition, book).

    (ii) Content of document. This should explain the essential features of the document, for example, that it is a petition relating to all books in cursive type or legislation protecting sculpture of animals, humans and invented subjects. It should be pithy, and precise. If it is a book, the focus is on the essential argument: e.g. “this tract was a response to William Warburton’s 1747 tract (see uk_1747), and argues that there is no justification for common law rights in literary property based on natural law”

    (iii) Significance of document. Again this should be one or two lines. In many cases the significance with be related to our overall goals - and the reason for including the document: so you will want to say that it was “The first British legislation conferring protection of drama against public performance, as opposed to reproduction...” “This case firmly established that protection in Britain was grounded in promoting the public interest, rather than protecting the inherent rights of authors”...or “This legislation document indicates the importance of British developments on the evolution of copyright laws in Prussia.”

    (iv) Content of commentary. A couple of lines on what you say in your commentary, covering both background description and your argument as to the significance of the Act.

    (v) Bibliography. Suggest a few key bibliographic texts.



    Database technology

    The first database version from 2008 was based on the open source Kleio system developed by Prof. Manfred Thaller (HKI Institute, University of Cologne, Germany).

    In 2011 we redesigned the database in order to provide more flexibility and interconnectivity in regards to the provided data by switching to a LAMP oriented solution. The database now is based on CouchDB (instead of MySql which the term LAMP would indicate). The search is based on SOLR which is indexing all provided transcription and translation text files. All browsing resp. linking mechanisms are PHP based database requests of specified CouchDB Views.




    Links within record and commentary information

    Every record or commentary information is linked to a database request about that term and its related data. This enables in a convenient way to dig deeper in a specific field of interest (i.e. keywords) when presented on a selected record or commentary.
    This is one extension to the first database version where only commentaries and related records were linked.




    Wikipedia and Google Books search results

    In order to improve the service we integrated search results for terms and persons found on Wikipedia as well as for the bibliography on Google Books. Since this is done automatically there is a small chance that single results on the Wikipedia search are not allways as accurate as intended.



    Dublin Core via OAI/PMH

    We provide an OAI/PMH data interface, delivering our record data in Dublin Core. The interface follows the specifications: ListIdentifiers and ListRecords have a resumptionToken implementation, reducing the response to 50 results per request (starting with a cursor=0 when called without that parameter)

    Example:
    http://copy.law.cam.ac.uk/cam/tools/oai_pmh/oai?verb=ListIdentifiers&resumptionToken=5


  • Copyright statement
    You may copy and distribute the translations and commentaries in this resource, or parts of such translations and commentaries, in any medium, for non-commercial purposes as long as the authorship of the commentaries and translations is acknowledged, and you indicate the source as Bently & Kretschmer (eds), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900) (www.copyrighthistory.org).

    You may not publish these documents for any commercial purposes, including charging a fee for providing access to these documents via a network. This licence does not affect your statutory rights of fair dealing.

    Although the original documents in this database are in the public domain, we are unable to grant you the right to reproduce or duplicate some of these documents in so far as the images or scans are protected by copyright or we have only been able to reproduce them here by giving contractual undertakings. For the status of any particular images, please consult the information relating to copyright in the bibliographic records.


    Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, 10 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DZ, UK