The following is an excerpt from Brandew Matthews‘ article, The Evolution of Copyright, which originally appeared in Political Science Quarterly in December, 1890. It traces the “prehistory” of copyright — from ancient Greek and Roman times to the development of the printing press — and gives one explanation for its development.
Perhaps a consideration of the evolution of copyright in the past will conduce to a closer understanding of its condition at present, and to a clearer appreciation of its probable development in the future. It is instructive as well as entertaining to trace the steps by which men, combining themselves in society, in Arnold’s phrase, have afforded to the individual author the sanction of the law in possessing what he has produced; and it is no less instructive to note the successive enlargements of jurisprudence by which property in books—which is, as Lowell says, the creature of local municipal law—has slowly developed until it demands and receives international recognition.
The maxim that “there is no wrong without a remedy,” indicates the line of legal development. The instinct of possession is strong; and in the early communities, where most things were in common, it tended more and more to assert itself. When anything which a man claimed as his own was taken from him, he had a sense of wrong, and his first movement was to seek vengeance—much as a dog defends his bone, growling when it is taken from him, or even biting. If public opinion supported the claim of possession, the claimant would be sustained in his effort to get revenge. So, from the admission of a wrong, would grow up the recognition of a right. The moral right became a legal right as soon as it received the sanction of the State. The State first commuted the right of vengeance, and awarded damages, and the action of tort was born. For a long period property was protected only by the action for damages for disseizin; but this action steadily widened in scope until it became an action for recovery; and the idea of possession or seizin broadened into the idea of ownership. This development went on slowly, bit by bit and day by day, under the influence of individual self-assertion and the resulting pressure of public opinion, which, as Lowell once tersely put it, is like that of the atmosphere: “You can’t see it, but it is fifteen pounds to the square inch all the same.”
The individual sense of wrong stimulates the moral growth of society at large; and in due course of time, after a strenuous struggle with those who profit by the denial of justice, there comes a calm at last, and ethics crystallize into law. In more modern periods of development, the recognition of new forms of property generally passes through three stages. First, there is a mere moral right, asserted by the individual and admitted by most other individuals, but not acknowledged by society as a whole. Second, there is a desire on the part of those in authority to find some means of protection for this admitted moral right, and the action in equity is allowed—this being an effort to command the conscience of those whom the ordinary policeman is incompetent to deal with. And thirdly, in the fullness of time, there is declared a law setting forth clearly the privileges of the producer and the means whereby he can defend his property and recover damages for an attack on it. This process of legislative declaration of rights is still going on all about us and in all departments of law, as modern life develops and spreads out and becomes more and more complex; and we have come to a point where we can accept Jhering’s definition of a legal right as “a legally protected interest.”
As it happens, this growth of a self-asserted claim into a legally protected interest can be traced with unusual ease in the evolution of copyright, because copyright itself is comparatively a new thing. The idea of property was (probably first recognized in the tools which early man made for himself, and in the animais or men whom he subdued; later, in the soil which he cultivated. In the beginning the idea attached only to tangible things—to actual physical possession—to that which a man might pass from hand to hand. Now, in the dawn of history nothing was less a physical possession than literature; it was not only intangible, it was invisible even. There was literature before there was any writing, before an author could set down his lines in black and white. Homer and the rhapsodists published their poems by word of mouth. Litera scripta manet; but the spoken poem flew away with the voice of the speaker and lingered only in the memory. Even after writing was invented, and after parchment and papyrus made it possible to preserve the labors of the poet and the historian, these authors had not, for many a century yet, any thought of making money by multiplying copies of their works.
The Greek dramatists, like the dramatists of today, relied for their pecuniary reward on the public performance of their plays. There is a tradition that Herodotus, when an old man, read his History to an Athenian audience at the Panathenaic festival, and so delighted them that they gave him as a recompense ten talents—more than twelve thousand dollars of our money. In Rome, where there were booksellers having scores of trained slaves to transcribe manuscripts for sale, perhaps the successful author was paid for a poem, but we find no trace of copyright or of anything like it. Horace speaks of a certain book as likely to make money for a certain firm of booksellers. In the other Latin poets, and even in the prose writers of Rome, we read more than one cry of suffering over the blunders of the copyists, and more than one protest in anger against the mangled manuscripts of the hurried, servile transcribers. But nowhere do we find any complaint that the author’s rights have been infringed; and this, no doubt, was because the author did not yet know that he had any wrongs. Indeed, it was only after the invention of printing that an author had an awakened sense of the injury done him in depriving him of the profit of vending his own writings; because it was only after Gutenberg had set up as a printer that the possibility of definite profit from the sale of his works became visible to the author. Before then he had felt no sense of wrong; he had thought mainly of the honor of a wide circulation of his writings; and he had been solicitous chiefly about the exactness of the copies. With the invention of printing there was a chance of profit; and as soon as the author saw this profit diminished by an unauthorized reprint, he was conscious of injury, and he protested with all the strength that in him lay. He has continued to protest from that day to this; and public opinion has been aroused, until by slow steps the author is gaining the protection he claims.
It is after the invention of printing that we must seek the origin of copyright. Mr. De Vinne shows that Gutenberg printed a book with movable types, at Mentz, in 1451. Fourteen years later, in 1465, two Germans began to print in a monastery near Rome, and removed to Rome itself in 1467; and in 1469 John of Spira began printing in Venice. Louis XI. sent to Mentz Nicholas Jenson, who introduced the art into France in 1469. Caxton set up the first press in England in 1474.
In the beginning these printers were publishers also; most of their first books were Bibles, prayer-books, and the like; but in 1465, probably not more than fifteen years after the first use of movable types, Fust and Schoeffer put forth an edition of Cicero’s Offices—” the first tribute of the new art to polite literature,” Hallam calls it. The original editing of the works of a classic author, the comparison of manuscripts, the supplying of lacuna, the revision of the text, called for scholarship of a high order; this scholarship was sometimes possessed by the printer-publisher himself but more often than not he engaged learned men to prepare the work for him and to see it through the press. This first edition was a true pioneer’s task; it was a blazing of the path and a clearing of the field. Once done, the labor of printing again that author’s writings in a condition acceptable to students would be easy. Therefore the printer-publisher who had given time and money and hard work to the proper presentation of a Greek or Latin book was outraged when a rival press sent forth a copy of his edition, and sold the volume at a lower price, possibly, because there had been no need to pay for the scholarship which the first edition had demanded. That the earliest person to feel the need of copyright production should have been a printer-publisher is worthy of remark; obviously, in this case, the printer-publisher stood for the author and was exactly in his position. He was prompt to protest against this disseizin of the fruit of his labors; and the earliest legal recognition of his rights was granted less than a score of years after the invention of printing had made the injury possible. It is pleasant for us Americans to know that this first feeble acknowledgment of copyright was made by a republic. The Senate of Venice issued an order, in 1469, that John of Spira should have the exclusive right for five years to print the epistles of Cicero and of Pliny.
This privilege was plainly an exceptional exercise of the power of the sovereign state to protect the exceptional merit of a worthy citizen; it gave but a limited protection; it guarded but two books, for a brief period only, and only within the narrow limits of one commonwealth. But, at least, it established a precedent—a precedent which has broadened down the centuries until now,’ four hundred years later, any book published in Venice is, by international conventions, protected from pillage for a period of at least fifty years, through a territory which includes almost every important country of continental Europe. If John of Spira were to issue to-day his edition of Tully’s Letters, he need not fear an unauthorized reprint anywhere in the kingdom of which Venice now forms a part, or in his native land, Germany, or in France, Belgium, or Spain, or even in Tunis, Liberia, or Hayti.
The habit of asking for a special privilege from the authorities of the State wherein the book was printed spread rapidly. In 1491 Venice gave the publicist, Peter of Ravenna, and the publisher of his choice the exclusive right to print and sell his Phoenix —the first recorded instance of a copyright awarded directly to an author. Other Italian states “encouraged printing by granting to different printers exclusive rights for fourteen years, more or less, of printing specified classics,” and thus the time of the protection accorded to John of Spira was doubled. In Germany the first privilege was issued at Nuremberg, in 1501. In France the privilege covered but one edition of a book; and if the work went to press again, the publisher had to seek a second patent.
In England, in 1518, Richard Pynson, the King’s Printer, issued the first book cum privilegio; the title-page declaring that no one else should print or import in England any other copies for two years; and in 1530 a privilege for seven years was granted to John Palsgrave ” in the consideration of the value of his work and the time spent on it; this being the first recognition of the nature of copyright as furnishing a reward to the author for his labor.” In 1533 Wynkyn de Worde obtained the king’s privilege for his second edition of Witinton’s Grammar. The first edition of this book had been issued ten years before, and during the decade it had been reprinted by Peter Trevers without leave—a despoilment against which Wynkyn de Worde protested vigorously in the preface to the later edition, and on account of which he applied for and secured protection. Here again is evidence that a man does not think of his rights until he feels a wrong. Jhering bases the struggle for law on the instinct of ownership as something personal, and the feeling that the person is attacked whenever a man is deprived of his property; and, as Walter Savage Landor wrote: “No property is so entirely and purely and religiously a man’s own as what comes to him immediately from God, without intervention or participation.” The development of copyright, and especially its rapid growth within the past century, is due to the loud protests of authors deprived of the results of their labors, and therefore smarting as acutely as under a personal insult.