Censorship and Copyright: A Love Story – Part I

April 21, 2011

Mary was a beautiful girl.

With enchanting black eyes,
shining with the dreams of a lovely future,
a silky flowing hair,
a velvet soft fair skin, 
that highlighted
the delicate traits of her face,
rosy lips,
glowing with innocence…

It is hard to believe that this, once sweet beautiful little girl,
will grow up to order the execution of more than 300 people,
most of them to be burn alive at the stake.

The first burnings happened in a period of five days in 1555.
The burnings were so unpopular that even the ecclesiastical
staff of her husband, King Phillip-II, condemned them.
Court advisors were afraid that her cruelty will incite a revolt.
Mary became Queen of England on August 3rd 1553, and
later marry King Phillip of Spain, with the hope of unifying
England, Spain, and the vast territories of the New World.

She was Queen only for the short period of five years.
During that time she engaged in religious prosecution,
failed military confrontations and ruined the economy
of England.

Mary was not only a cold blooded despotic tyrant.

She was also an Inventor !

The inner working machinery of her devious mind,
gave birth to COPYRIGHT.
Her only child.

In 1557, Queen Mary implemented an innovative system
to censor the printing press in England by issuing a charter
to the Stationer’s Company, a Guild of Printers.

At the time, Guilds were trade associations, Charted by the
Crown. They were responsible for the regulation of their trades,
controlling, for instance, wages and labor conditions.

Under this new copyright charter:

  • Only members of the company could legally produce books.
  • The only books they would print were approved by the Crown.
  • The company was authorized to confiscate unsanctioned books.
  • Company’s master and wardens were empowered to
    •  seize and burn all prohibited books and
    •  Imprison their publishers

It was a nice deal for the Printers. This exclusivity to print books
gave them a Monopoly Power to print and distribute books, and
therefore to set the price they pleased for them.

In exchange,
the printers simply agree to relinquish the freedom to print
disagreeable or dissenting texts.

It is easy to understand why an oppressive tyrant like Queen Mary
will find COPYRIGHT to be of great utility. In a society where the
most effective mean of communication was the printing press,
being able to control the distribution of information was an essential
tool to maintain her subjects impotency under her despotic ruling.

Queen Mary died in 1558 at age 42.

Her devious censorship charter to the Stationer’s Company lasted
for 137 years. The system extended later to the American colonies.

In 1662, the General Court of Massachusetts issued an order
forbidding any printer from publishing anything without a license.

The Monopoly of the Stationer’s Company expired in 1694.

The Publishers lobbyed the Crown to have their cozy monopoly
to be renewed (an ominous precedent of the recent continuous
extension of copyright
). Fortunately the new strength of the
British Parliament prevented the sweet deal from being extended.

under the reign of Queen Ann,
the British and Scottish unified Parliaments
changed the laws to create the
Copyright Act of 1709,
also known as The Statue of Anne.

“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”

With this act, the parliament, aware of the censorship role
of the publishers, took the Monopoly away from them, and
transfer the rights to the Authors themselves and the
Purchasers of the Books.

Current American Copyright Laws are the modern
descendants of the Statue of Anne.

but Helas !
in this story
despite the good intentions of the Parliament,
we were not meant to live happily ever after…

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