The History of Copyright: A Critical Overview With Source Texts in Five Languages (a forthcoming book by Karl-Erik Tallmo)

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A few quotations from historical source texts


 The Statute of Anne, published 1710, the first copyright law: "An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned." The whole text is available here.


Oratio publicata res libera est. (A speech made public is free.)
Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (345-410)

[...] may it please your Majesty that it may be enacted [...] that the author of any book or books already composed, and not printed and published, or that shall hereafter be composed [...] shall have the sole liberty of printing and reprinting such book and books for the term of fourteen years, to commence from the day of the first publishing the same, and no longer [...]
The Statute of Anne, 1710

...the bookseller acquires by an act a manuscript; the ministry, by a permission, authorizes the publication of this manuscript, and guarantees to the purchaser the peace of his possession. What is there that could be contrary to the general interest?
Denis Diderot, "Lettre sur le Commerce de la librarie", 1763

Lord Chief Baron Smythe observed, [...] that the cases proved that property did exist previous to publication, and that publication could not alter it; for that publication neither made it a sale, a gift, a forfeiture, nor an abandonment, which were the only ways that a person could part with his property. When a man published his manuscript, he sold to one person only one book, and the use of that one book, without any design of allowing the purchaser to multiply copies: if he gave a book away, he gave it under the same restrictions.
Donaldson v. Beckett, Proceedings in the Lords, 1774

Now, if there exists any incorporeal right or property in the author, detached from his manuscript, no act of publication can destroy it. Can then such right or property exist at all? [---] Abridgments of books, translations, notes, as effectually deprive the original author of the fruit of his labours, as direct particular copies, yet they are allowable. The composers of music, the engravers of copper-plates, the inventors of machines, are all excluded from the privilege now contended for; but why, if an equitable and moral right is to be the sole foundation of it? Their genius, their study, their labour, their originality, is as great as an author's, their inventions are as much prejudiced by copyists, and their claim, in my opinion, stands exactly on the same footing ...
Lord Chief Justice De Grey in Donaldson v. Beckett, Proceedings in the Lords, 1774

Lord Effingham rose last, and begged to urge the liberty of the press, as the strongest argument against this property; adding, that a despotic minister, hearing of a pamphlet which might strike at his measures, may buy the copy, and by printing 20 copies, secure it his own, and by that means the public would be deprived of the most interesting information.
Donaldson v. Beckett, Proceedings in the Lords, 1774

The author and the owner of the copy may both say about it with the same right: it is my book! but in a different sense. The first regards the book as writing or speech; the second only as the mute instrument that delivers the speech to him or the public, i.e. as a copy. This right of the author is however no right to the thing, namely the copy (since the owner may burn it before the author's eyes), but an innate right in his own person, that is to prevent another from delivering it to the public without his consent, which consent can by no means be presumed, because he has already given it exclusively to another.
Immanuel Kant, Von der Unrechtmäßigkeit des Büchernachdrucks, 1785

The most sacred, most personal of all the properties, is the work fruit of the thought of a writer [...] so it is extremely just that the men who cultivate the field of thought enjoy some fruits from their work, it is essential that during their life and a few years after their death, nobody can dispose of the product of their genius, without their consent.
Jean Le Chapelier in the Paris Assembly 1791

It is thus obvious, that according to common judgment, the public regards and must regard itself as being in joint possession of a published work: and that which has been published in print, can no less than manuscripts in earlier times, be considered publici iuris.
J.A.H. Reimarus, Der Bücherverlag in Betrachtung der Schriftsteller, der Buchhändler und des Publikums abermals erwogen, April 1791

I wanted to show that those, who complain about reprinting, state reasons and demands they cannot maintain, since the reprinting of published writings must be judged only by how reasonable or unreasonable it is, and consequently it must be left to each and everyone's own conscience to consider what common advantage to allow, and this cannot be regulated by legislation.
J.A.H. Reimarus, Nachtrag zu der Erwägung des Bücherverlags und dessen Rechte, December 1791

Now, why does one regard the use of a writer's own words quite different from the use of his ideas? In the last case, we utilize what we have as common property with him, and prove that it is thus, by giving it our form; in the first case we take possession of his form, which is not our property, but exclusively his. [---] The right of the buyer to copy what he has bought, goes as far as physical possibility permits in appropriating it; and this diminishes, the more the work depends on form, which we can never make our own.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Beweis der Unrechtmäßigkeit des Büchernachdrucks, 1793

It is sufficient that philosophically we understand that in all imitation two elements must coexist, and not only coexist, but must be perceived as coexisting. These two constituent elements are likeness and unlikeness, or sameness and difference, and in all genuine creations of art there must be a union of these disparates.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, On Poesy or Art, 1818

A poet creates verse; the paper which materializes the issuance, the hundred thousand copies where they are reproduced, could possibly be the property of an individual, of a thousand or one hundred thousand, but what is not possible to appropriate, are the verses themselves: each one has the capacity to recognize them with his intellect, and the possibility to reproduce them by reciting them, by writing them down.
Augustin Charles Renouard, "Les Droits d'Auteurs dans la Littérature, les Sciences et les Beaux-Arts" (1838)

Before the publication, the author has an undeniable and unlimited right. Think of a man like Dante, Molière, Shakespeare. Imagine him at the time when he has just finished a great work. His manuscript is there, in front of him; suppose that he gets the idea to throw it into the fire; nobody can stop him. Shakespeare can destroy Hamlet, Molière Tartufe, Dante the Hell.
But as soon as the work is published, the author is not any more the master. It is then that other persons seize it: call them what you will: human spirit, public domain, society. It is such persons who say: I am here; I take this work, I do with it what I believe I have to do, [...] I possess it, it is with me from now on...
Victor Hugo, in the 1870's, as chair of l'Association Littéraire Internationale.


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