Copyright versus Digital

Copyright is fairly new regulation – philosophers, scholars and entertainers did without it through ancient and medieval times. For them, expressing something for others to hear or writing text down and giving it into other hands obviously meant that there was no way to control what happened to it afterwards. Even the advent of the printing press didn’t change that for the next 250 years, but the spread of literacy eventually created a larger market for books and hence lead to a more organized and consolidated publishing industry. The traditional actors in that space were printers and booksellers until publishers started to emerge. They offered to take care of the two aforementioned functions, but their actual purpose is an entirely different one: they’re risk investors into book projects. They’re out to buy manuscripts from authors, then bring them into proper language, adjust them to the extend that (their) readers might find the result interesting, then pay for the typesetting, then pay for all of the printing (amount of copies depending on their estimates of how much they can sell), then pay for the distribution to the booksellers; out of their own pocket in advance. Too many times the publishers will find that their books don’t sell, in which case the bookstore will strip the books off their covers and send the covers back as proof while the paper ends up in the trash. Every now and then they land a big hit and earn a lot of money to cover the losses from the failed book projects. Over time, printing technology improved, so the price per copy for a publisher is incredibly low now, on the other hand, additional services like marketing eat away some of what would otherwise be profit.

With that kind of business model, publishers understandably wanted to protect their investement into a manuscript because an independent printer could easily take the refined text of a book and reproduce it without the need to ever buy the manuscript from the author or to pay the editor as the initial investor had to. Note that the printer would still have to invest for his own typesetting (until the arrival of photocopying) and the distribution to the bookseller, but he probably wouldn’t take chances and just reprint titles that already turned out to be successful. Also note that an author would not necessarily get a cut of every copy sold beyond the initial payment by the publisher for physically obtaining the manuscript. “Writer” in itself wasn’t a profession to generate income, but what somebody had to become in order to communicate messages to a large audience. Publishers naturally don’t care much about steady royalties for the author at their expense, while it allows for a lower initial payment and transferral of some of the financial risk over to the author as the royalties can be tied to the success of the project. The lawmaker, looking at this constellation, decided to introduce copyright for the publishers that allowed them to prevent other printers and competing publishers from making copies. Such a right however wouldn’t establish itself for the publisher as a matter of fact, instead, it needed to be granted by the author, who himself didn’t have a way to make use of it. The intention might have been to improve the position of authors to negotiate better contracts with publishers, but the same took place when selling the manuscript, and soon the industry came up with a “standard contract” beyond which special conditions only rarely can be arranged. For example, it’s always expected that the contract is an exclusive one, that the author doesn’t grant the right to copy to a second publisher, which is why there isn’t much variation in most commercial literature.

What the legislation did do was to enable the installation of a clear flow of money from the many booksellers to only one publisher. No matter where a reader bought a book, if the publisher had obtained the exclusive copyright, he was empowered to make sure that some of the money would end up in his account. Booksellers were the only source for buying reading material anyway, so if readers wanted to own a text, they were forced to get it as a physical object from those distributors and the physical transfer/exchange of the object was obviously tied to the payment, no matter to what extend the price covers only the production cost or the entire print-based publishing chain or the cross-subsidization of other book projects by the same publisher. Copyright infringement was never an issue because if unauthorized copies popped up somewhere, it was easy to trace back where they came from. From 1887 on, countries can join the Berne Convention, under which participants have to treat citizens from the other signatories according to their own national copyright law, which in effect led to some convergence, but there is no such thing as an “international copyright”. Still, none of this had impact on the public because people didn’t have printing presses. Copying was a fairly large operation and bound by physical limitations such as the capital required to build the equipment, cost per produced unit, location to set it up, required certain craftsmanship by the operators, et cetera. Each copy was a scarce resource. If a print run was sold out, to set up a new one would be expensive and economy of scale only made it lucrative if larger quantities were produced. To make a text available to somebody else meant that the previous owner would loose possession of that text. And then digital technology changed all of that in the most fundamental way.

To be continued…

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