Does copyright conflict with free speech? The idea that it does has gained a lot of traction recently. Yet arguments of a conflict between copyright law and the First Amendment in the United States are relatively new — understanding why the two co-existed for nearly two centuries before these arguments began to appear should prove valuable to current scholarship.
In previous posts, I outlined several explanations for this lack of conflict based on historical documents and court decisions. Copyright laws were passed by the States after provisions for freedom of speech and the press were enshrined in law, indicating that the two were viewed as compatible. At that time, Liberty of the press was defined primarily as an absence of government licensing — even under broader definitions, protecting an author’s copyright was not viewed as offensive to a free press. In part, this was because copyright was conceived as a property right, and liberty does not extend to invasions of other’s rights.
Today I want to present perhaps one of the most important reasons copyright has historically escaped free speech scrutiny.
During their formative years, the liberty of the press and recognition of copyright were seen as means to an end. They shared the same goal — the advancement of knowledge, the arts, and sciences. And they were viewed as complementary, rather than conflicting, means to reach this goal.
Freedom of the Press Goals and Purpose
During the 18th century, at a minimum, the freedom of the press meant an absence of prior restraints on publishing — whether through government licensing or censorship. Noted jurist William Blackstone, who ensconced this minimalist definition of press liberty in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, described the aversion to previous restraints: “To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion, and government.”
The Founding Fathers viewed the liberty of the press as promoting broader goals then this. In a 1774 Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, the First Continental Congress wrote:
The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.
To the Continental Congress, the primary purpose of press liberty was political: a democratic government needs to be openly examined to function. But note the secondary purpose: “the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general.” This is strikingly similar to the later constitutional purpose given for Congress’s copyright authority: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”
A Free Press Promotes Knowledge
There are other examples from the 18th and 19th centuries of those who believed one of the purposes of free speech was to encourage knowledge.
The Cato Letters, a series of newspaper articles published in England in the 1720s that served as ideological inspiration for the Founding Fathers, included this oft-quoted passage on the freedom of speech: “Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them. It produces excellent writers, and encourages men of fine genius.”
What is it that distinguishes human Society from a brutish herd, but the flourishing of the Arts and Sciences; the free Exercise of Wit and Reason? What can Government mean, intend, or produce, that is worthy of Man, or beneficial to him, as he is a rational creature, besides Wisdom, Knowlege, Virtue and Science? Is it merely indeed that we may eat, drink, sleep, sing and dance with security that we choose Governours, subject our selves to their administration, and pay taxes? Take away the Arts, Religion, Knowlege, Virtue, (all of which must flourish, or sink together) and in the Name of Goodness, what is left to us that is worth enjoying or protecting? Yet take away the Liberty of the Press, and we are all at once stript of the use of our noblest Faculties: our Souls themselves are imprisoned in a dark dungeon: we may breathe, but we cannot be said to live.
Liberty of the press, as Milton argued for in what is considered one of the “most influential and impassioned philosophical defences” of the principle — here, taking the form of an absence of government licensing or censorship — is a prerequisite to the progress of knowledge, art, and science. Thomson was not alone in this sentiment.
Elsewhere, a London magazine from 1820 described the goal of the liberty of the press like this: “To promote the diffusion of knowledge, to elicit the fruits of genius, to facilitate and to encourage the general interchange of minds and of hearts”
And the first issue of the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge, published in 1834, included a brief article on newspapers, where it was writeen, “The progress of society has been onward, wherever there has been a free press maintained and encouraged. It has chased away much darkness from the civilized parts of the world, and spread light and knowledge in our path.”
Copyright Promotes Knowledge
The copyright statutes passed in the States prior to the drafting of the Constitution use similar language. The acts were passed with the purpose of “the encouragement of literature and genius” and the goal of, for example, “the improvement of knowledge, the progress of civilisation, and the advancement of human happiness.” The means of implementing this purpose to reach the goal was the securing of legal rights to “men of learning who devote their time and talents” to literature and genius.2
The impetus for these laws came in part from the efforts of authors like Joel Barlow. In 1783, he wrote the Continental Congress in favor of a copyright law. The famous poet and drafter of the Treaty of Tripoli told the Congress, “As we have few Gentlemen of fortune sufficient to enable them to spend a whole life in study, or enduce others to do it by their patronage, it is more necessary, in this country than in any other, that the rights of authors should be secured by law.”
Barlow’s letter encapsulated the reasoning behind the idea of copyright as an incentive to promote knowledge: literary and intellectual works took a considerable amount of time and resources to produce, and given the great public benefits that flow from them, some way of encouraging people to devote their time and resources to producing them was needed.
You can see this idea adopted and explained by others throughout the 19th century. In his famous speech to the English House of Commons in 1841, Thomas Babington Macaulay said:
The advantages arising from a system of copyright are obvious. It is desirable that we should have a supply of good books; we cannot have such a supply unless men of letters are liberally remunerated; and the least objectionable way of remunerating them is by means of copyright. You cannot depend for literary instruction and amusement on the leisure of men occupied in the pursuits of active life. Such men may occasionally produce compositions of great merit. But you must not look to such men for works which require deep meditation and long research. Works of that kind you can expect only from persons who make literature the business of their lives. Of these persons few will be found among the rich and the noble. The rich and the noble are not impelled to intellectual exertion by necessity. They may be impelled to intellectual exertion by the desire of distinguishing themselves, or by the desire of benefiting the community. But it is generally within these walls that they seek to signalise themselves and to serve their fellow-creatures. Both their ambition and their public spirit, in a country like this, naturally take a political turn. It is then on men whose profession is literature, and whose private means are not ample, that you must rely for a supply of valuable books. Such men must be remunerated for their literary labour. And there are only two ways in which they can be remunerated. One of those ways is patronage; the other is copyright.
In 1853, Charles Bishop Goodrich published The Science of Government: As Exhibited in the Institutions of the United States, a popular early treatise on US government. His section on copyright takes the same view as Barlow and Macaulay:
Another power conferred upon congress was and is designed “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” … The propriety of the power, and of its enlarged and liberal exercise, cannot be doubted. Individuals cannot devote their time and lives to the attainment of extensive or important knowledge, unless they can derive some personal benefit from their labor. In every useful invention, in the production of useful writings, the public have as much, and frequently a greater interest than the individual inventor or writer can have. Every measure which can with propriety be adopted to enlarge and extend the progress of science and of the arts, is calculated to accomplish the elevation of the people, and must therefore be regarded as of the utmost importance. The effect of our system, and the encouragement which it affords to the promotion of knowledge, has been apparent. Much advancement has been made, in fact it may be regarded as characteristic, and may be said of the American people, that they are progressive, inventive, and suggestive, in all their operations.
At this point, one might think that the shared goals of a free press and copyright are only coincidental: one could easily find references to other means of promoting knowledge at the time. For example, in his first State of the Union address, President George Washington told Congress, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature,” but left it to them to decide “Whether this desirable object will be best promoted by affording aids to seminaries of learning already established, by the institution of a national university, or by any other expedients.”
Yet as the ideas of a free press and copyright developed, the relationship between the two strenghthened. There was something specific about securing legal rights to authors so that they may profit off their writings that not only advanced the arts and sciences but also advanced the principles of a free press.
As noted above, Macaulay spoke about two ways to remunerate authors: patronage and copyright. He follows that with an explanation of why the latter is more preferable to a free society:
There have been times in which men of letters looked, not to the public, but to the government, or to a few great men, for the reward of their exertions. It was thus in the time of Maecenas and Pollio at Rome, of the Medici at Florence, of Louis the Fourteenth in France, of Lord Halifax and Lord Oxford in this country. Now, Sir, I well know that there are cases in which it is fit and graceful, nay, in which it is a sacred duty to reward the merits or to relieve the distresses of men of genius by the exercise of this species of liberality. But these cases are exceptions. I can conceive no system more fatal to the integrity and independence of literary men than one under which they should be taught to look for their daily bread to the favour of ministers and nobles. I can conceive no system more certain to turn those minds which are formed by nature to be the blessings and ornaments of our species into public scandals and pests.
One of the most striking characteristics of our age, and that, indeed, which has worked deepest in all the changes of its fortunes and pursuits, is the general diffusion of knowledge. This is emphatically the age of reading. In other times this was the privilege of the few; in ours, it is the possession of the many. Learning once constituted the accomplishment of those in the higher orders of society, who had no relish for active employment, and of those, whose monastic lives and religious profession sought to escape from the weariness of their common duties. Its progress may be said to have been gradually downwards from the higher to the’middle classes of society. It scarcely reached at all, in its joys or its sorrows, in its instructions or its fantasies, the home of the peasant and artisan. It now radiates in all directions; and exerts its central force more in the middle than in any other class of society. The means of education were formerly within the reach of few. It required wealth to accumulate knowledge. The possession of a library was no ordinary achievement. The learned leisure of a fellowship in some university seemed almost indispensable for any successful studies; and the patronage of princes and courtiers was the narrow avenue to public favor. I speak of a period at little more than the distance of two centuries; not of particular instances, but of the general cast and complexion of life.
The principal cause of this change is to be found in the freedom of the press, or rather in this, cooperating with the cheapness of the press. … The daily press first instructed men in their wants, and soon found, that the eagerness of curiosity outstripped the power of gratifying it. No man can now doubt the fact, that wherever the press is free, it will emancipate the people; wherever knowledge circulates unrestrained, it is no longer safe to oppress; wherever public opinion is enlightened, it nourishes an independent, masculine, and healthful spirit. If Faustus were now living, he might exclaim with all the enthusiasm of Archimedes, and with a far nearer approach to the truth, Give me, where I may place a free press, and I will shake the world.
One interesting effect, which owes its origin to this universal love and power of reading, is felt in the altered condition of authors themselves. They no longer depend upon the smiles of a favored few. The patronage of the great is no longer submissively entreated, or exultingly proclaimed. Their patrons are the public; their readers are the civilized world. They address themselves, not to the present generation alone, but aspire to instruct posterity. No blushing dedications seek an easy passport to fame, or flatter the perilous condescension of pride. No illuminated letters flourish on the silky page, asking admission to the courtly drawingroom. Authors are no longer the humble companions or dependents of the nobility: but they constitute the chosen ornaments of society, and are welcomed to the gay circles of fashion and the palaces of princes. Theirs is no longer an unthrifty vocation, closely allied to penury; but an elevated profession, maintaining its thousands in lucrative pursuits.
Copyright: a Critical Component of a Free Press
It would seem that Story and Macaulay’s view of copyright as an integral component of a free press held sway throughout the 18th century and into the 19th.
An editorial calling for copyright protection of newspaper articles appeared in The Reasoner in 1844, in which the authors argued, “If the public desire a really free press, they must not look to it as a source of taxation; and if they are anxious for truth, for elevated and elevating sentiments, for ideas matured by study and reflection, and an honest exposition of grievances, they must recognise original articles as property, and secure them against a plundering appropriation by a copyright.”
British lawyer James Paterson, in an 1880 commentary on the liberty of the press, speech, and public worship, said that “When any person is free to publish whatever he deems interesting or valuable either as a mode of procuring profit to himself or as a means of influencing the minds and will of his fellow-citizens on matters on which union and combination can effect great results, this is the highest mark of freedom.”
Into the 20th century, we can find reaffirmation of these views. Historian Edward Bloom writes:
Recognition of proprietary rights of authors under the Copyright Act of 1709 was an extremely important step in liberating the press. Copyright security helped to stimulate private initiative by providing authors of books some measure of financial independence. By at least partially obviating the economic function of political patrons, the Act of 1709 aided immeasurably in the freedom of the press.3
Finally, when legal scholars were just starting to develop the free speech critique of copyright, former Register of Copyrights Barbara Ringer offered these observations:
[T]he concept of copyright changed radically as a result of the revolutionary political movements of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and the first copyright statutes were based on a rejection of autocratic repression and monopoly control and upon a new recognition of individual liberty and the human rights of authors. … Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are meaningless unless authors are able to create independently from control by anyone, and to find a way to put their works before the public.4
The Engine of Free Expression
Nearly two centuries after the Bill of Rights and the first Copyright Act were passed, the Supreme Court said, “[T]he Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression. By establishing a marketable right to the use of one’s expression, copyright supplies the economic incentive to create and disseminate ideas.”5
This metaphor, it would seem, accurately reflects the predominant historical view of copyright. Copyright and freedom of the press were seen as compatible, rather than contradictory, means to promote knowledge and learning. Liberty of the press freed the public from the caprice of the licensor, allowing diverse ideas and sentiments to disseminate. Copyright freed authors from patronage, providing security for the legal rights that encouraged devotion of time and talents to works that promote the progress of art and science.
- Copyright scholars will recognize James Thomson as the author of the poem “The Seasons“, which was the subject of two of the most important lawsuits in copyright history: Millar v. Taylor and Donaldson v. Beckett. [↩]
- See Connecticut Copyright Statute (1783); New Jersey Copyright Statute (1783); Massachusetts Copyright Statute (1783); New Hampshire Copyright Statute (1783); Maryland Copyright Statute (1783); Rhode Island Copyright Statute (1783); Pennsylvania Copyright Statute (1784); South Carolina Copyright Statute (1784); Virginia Copyright Statute (1785); North Carolina Copyright Statute (1785); Georgia Copyright Statute (1786); New York Copyright Statute (1786). [↩]
- Edward Bloom, Johnson on a Free Press: A Study in Liberty and Subordination, A Journal of English Literary History (Dec. 1949). [↩]
- The Demonology of Copyright, R.R. Bowker Memorial Lecture, 1974. [↩]
- Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 US 539, 558 (1985). [↩]