Report: Copyright

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  History: European Tradition

Only in Roman times the first rights referring to artistic works appeared. Regulations resembling a lasting exclusive right to copy did not occur until the 17th century. Before copyright was a private arrangement between guilds able to reproduce copies in commercial quantities.

In France and Western European countries "droits d'auteur" or author's rights is the core of what in the Anglo-American tradition is called copyright. Such rights are rooted in the republican revolution of the late 18th century, and the Rights of Man movement. Today in the European system the creator is front and center; later exploiters are only secondary players.


During the 18th century France gradually lost the ability to restrict intellectual property. Before the Revolution, all books, printers and booksellers had to have a royal stamp of approval, called a "privilege". In return for their lucrative monopoly, the French guild of printers and booksellers helped the police to suppress anything that upset royal sensibilities or ran contrary to their interests. Still there were also a whole lot of underground printers who flooded the country with pirated, pornographic and seditious literature. And thousands of writers, most at the edge of starvation.

In 1777 the King threatened the monopoly by reducing the duration of publisher's privileges to the lifetime of the authors. Accordingly a writer's work would go into the public domain after his death and could be printed by anyone. The booksellers fought back by argumenting that, no authority could take their property from them and give it to someone else. Seven months later, in August 1789, the revolutionary government ended the privilege system and from that time on anyone could print anything. Early in 1790 Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet proposed giving authors power over their own work lasting until ten years after their deaths. The proposal - the basis for France's first modern copyright law - passed in 1793.

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-3   Intellectual Property and the "Information Society" Metaphor
-2   Intellectual Property: A Definition
-1   History: Anglo-American Tradition
0   History: European Tradition
+1   History: Communist Tradition
+2   History: "The South"
+3   History: "Indigenous Tradition"
Recent "Digital Copyright" Legislation: European Union