The (Surprising) History of Copyright, and What It Means for Open Source

Karl Fogel,

Track: Emerging Topics
Date: Thursday, July 27
Time: 10:45am - 11:30am
Location: D137-138

Copyright grew out of a censorship law in England in the 1550s. When the English government relaxed censorship in the early 1700s, the publishers' guild (who had been partially responsible for enforcing it) proposed a new concept called "copyright," in order to keep the monopoly they'd had as censors. This new copyright became the means by which publishers subsidized the high up-front investment needed to do print runs.

So what does this have to do with open source?

Much of today's copyright debate is predicated on the notion that copyright was invented to subsidize authors, when it was actually invented to subsidize distributors. And this subsidy made sense: sustainable distribution mechanism are in society's interest. But viewing copyright in this new light transforms the question from "Does copying hurt artists?" (no, and anyway copyright wasn't about the artists) to "What kind of support mechanisms should distribution have today?" For example, when the RIAA rants against file-sharing software and lobbies for DRM, the best response is to turn the accusation on its head and ask the RIAA to justify the distribution subsidy in an age when distribution costs are rapidly approaching zero.

The open source movement is a predictor of where all our culture is going, and a historically informed understanding of copyright will help us argue more effectively for open source values in the wider world.