22 October 2018

Copyright: Then and Now

By Patrick Ibbotson

Charles Dickens

‘Dickens giving the last reading of his Works.’ . Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

I’ve been a Project Manager at Naomi Korn Associates for over 6 months and am just starting to get to grips with the huge topic that is copyright. I found that learning about the history of the laws was a great entry point to understanding so I’ve put together a short, sharp blog on the history of copyright and what has particularly interested me.

The Statute of Anne, 1709, is regarded as the world’s first copyright law. It was enacted in the UK, where the printing press had been in operation since the 15thCentury and brought with it mass production of printed books. Rights had to be protected, but whose rights? The new law gave a term of 14 years during which only the author and the printers to whom the authors chose to license their works could publish. For the first time the power was in the hands of the creators. A watershed moment. The Statute of Anne replaced an old system of private licensing with a new one in which copyright was regulated by government.

John Locke – Philosopher and Physician – was instrumental in the new law. He campaigned for changes to the previous laws which undervalued authors and gave power to the publishers. In the 18thCentury new Copyright legislation would be introduced around the world but these laws were in their naissance and clearly didn’t go far enough to protect creators’ rights.

Enter Victor Hugo, The Berne Convention of 1886 and the first international agreement involving copyright. Now the idea that creative works were given rights upon the act of creation was widespread. The original agreement included only 10 states but by formulating international agreements and creating new, minimum standards for dealing with copyright, the ability of ‘Pirate Publishers’ was diminished. I have discovered stories of writers like Charles Dickens touring round America in the mid 1800s aghast at the proliferation of unauthorised copies of his books. He received no income but didn’t have the backing of law and it was these guys, the pirate publishers, who took advantage.

Fast forward to now and copyright laws have continued to develop. Now the number of states signed up to the Berne Convention is 176; however these laws only determine base features of copyright laws. Copyright laws are, for the most part, siloed in individual states’ sovereignty. A growing problem is a world made smaller by technology such as the internet which allows users, irrespective of location to access content. Other troubles exist – artists had to work extremely hard to usher in laws which protected their rights to their created works but are we now sometimes going too far the other way? What is plagiarism and what is inspiration and will a next generation of artists feel harnessed by the estates of greats from the past?

Then there is the current debate around Artificial Intelligence…who owns their creations? Legislation, such as the newly approved EU copyright reform, still isn’t keeping up with emerging technologies but it’s a fascinating field, inextricably linked to ethical considerations that have been debated for centuries.

Find out more: To read an article by Naomi about the relationship between copyright and the collecting policies of museums, taking into account ethical considerations, click here


  1. History of Copyright website accessed at: http://historyofcopyright.org/
  2. Ronan, Deazley (2006). Rethinking copyright: history, theory, language. Edward Elgar Publishing.
  3. World Intellectual Property Organisation website accessed at: http://www.wipo.int/treaties/en/text.jsp?file_id=283698#P109_16834
  4. Downie, J.A. (4 Dec 2008). Periodicals, The Book Trade and The ‘Bourgeois Public Sphere’. Media History. 14(3): 262.
  5. Solberg, Thorvald (1908). Report of the Delegate of the United States to the International Conference for the Revision of the Berne Copyright Convention, Held at Berlin, Germany, 14 October to 14 November 1908. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
  6. Copyright House website accessed at: https://copyrighthouse.co.uk/copyright/countries-berne-convention.htm
  7. Charles Dickens Info website accessed at: https://www.charlesdickensinfo.com/life/copyright-laws/
  8. Laws website accessed at: https://copyright.laws.com/international-copyright/berne/berne-convention-overview

© Naomi Korn Associates, 2018. Some Rights Reserved. The information here is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike Licence (CC BY SA)


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