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History of copyright

I noted that more than a few of us were fascinated by the historical aspect of copyright presented in Siva Vaidhyanathan’s  Copyrights and Copywrongs.

Vaidhyanathan says in his introduction, “The chief goal of this work is to explain how essential the original foundations of American copyright law are our educational, political, artistic, and literary culture.” (p. 5) Vaidhyanathan, proceeds to not only explain the history of copyright, but also proceeds to give us concrete examples through the entire text. This enhances our understanding of copyright as well as helping us to question our understanding of what fair use is and how long a copyright should be in place.

In never knew, or even thought about, what the roots of copyright are. According to Vaidhyanathan, “American copyright emanates from the U.S. Constitution, which directs Congress to create a federal law that provides an incentive to create and distribute new works.” (p. 20) Motivation to create was brought up by me during the discussion in class regarding copyright. While some in class discussed abolishing copyright or shortening, drastically, the term of copyright, I brought up the fact that creative people may have no desire to create if they are unable to protect their creations from pirating. The framers of the Constitution, according to Vaidhyanathan, saw mass production of existing works that were pirated from works by British authors. There was little incentive to create something new in the United States as pirating works was so common. The following should be noted: “Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution … power to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to the respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Vaidhyanathan, 2001, p. 44-45) Copyright does give authors the incentive to create without fear of pirating. Note also, in this post, I use quotes and credit the author for his work. This is done, not only because Vaidhyanathan holds the copyright to his words, but also out of respect for the author and his creation.

It is also important to remember that the United States was not necessarily the originator of copyright. Copyright law was changed multiple times over the course of history. According to Vaidhyanathan, “…the U.S. Congress in 1998 extended U.S. copyright to match the European term [life plus 70 years]…” (p. 25) Earlier in history, the U.S. made the effort to join the international community with regard to copyright protection. Vaidhyanathan states, “… the United States agreed in 1891 to share copyright protection with the British Empire…” (p. 160) and “European countries in general have afforded broader and deeper protection to authors and publishers than the United States has.” (p. 160-161)

Vaidhyanathan has opened our eyes to how copyright came to be as well as to considerations and debate regarding length and protection. I would not consider for a moment that Vaidhyanathan should not be protected for his creation of any written work, including Copyrights and Copywrongs. Though Vaidhyanathan seems to advocate shorter copyright protection as created by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, I would consider it unfare for Vaidhyanathan to have to continuously reapply for copyright of his works. Though some of my classmates may disagree with me, respect for this author, and any other who creates an original work, should give us some foundation for understanding of the need for copyright.

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