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Free Culture

The Nature and Future of Creativity

By Lawrence Lessig
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig
Synopsis

Free Culture (2004) looks at the history of copyright law and its implications for culture and creativity. Using his expert insights as a lawyer and law professor, the author explains how powerful media corporations are using the law to stifle creativity in the age of the internet, and what we can do about it.

Key idea 1 of 10

Eighteenth-century English copyright laws were intended to prevent publishers from monopolizing the spread of knowledge.

In the age of the internet, stories of pirated movies and music are commonplace. Maybe you’ve even infringed on someone’s copyright by downloading copyrighted material! But while this might seem like a modern phenomenon, the issue has deeper historical roots.

In late eighteenth-century England the right to reproduce books, or copy-right, belonged to small but powerful groups of publishers.

For example, a group called The Conger had owned exclusive rights to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet since its first publication in 1597. Their exclusive claim to books acquired from authors gave them complete control over the market for books in England, meaning they could keep prices high.

All that changed in 1710, when the British Parliament adopted the Statute of Anne, the world’s first copyright act. The statute set limits on how long a work could be copyrighted: newly published works had a copyright term of 14 years that was renewable as long as the author lived. All works published prior to the statute had a term of 21 years.

The idea was to foster competition in publishing by limiting the rights of existing publishers. Once a copyright expired, the book would then become free for other publishers to publish, thereby breaking the big publishers’ monopoly and helping spread valuable knowledge.

So how did the publishers react to these new limitations?

Once the 21 year term expired, publishers began to protest. At first, they simply ignored the statue, and acted as if their copyright was never-ending.

In 1774 they brought a legal case to the House of Lords to ask for extensions on expired copyrights. The Lords, however, refused, rejecting perpetual copyrights and deciding instead that works would be released into what they called the public domain after the copyright expired. Once works were in the public domain, they could be printed by anyone.

The United States would later adopt this system. So what happened when these laws made their way across the Atlantic?

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