Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy of Intellectual Property

By Ronald V. Bettig | Go to book overview

2
Critical Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of Copyright

Critical research on intellectual property, including the relatively unexplored history of copyright, is still pioneering work. Traditional histories of copyright provide adequate descriptions of the origins and evolution of copyright but lack any real explanation for its emergence and functions.1 These histories are also teleological; they treat the "evolution" of the concept of literary property as a reflection of the natural progressiveness of human beings. The history of copyright developed in this chapter is based on an analytical framework that stresses the modes and relations of production and communications as the key explanatory variables in accounting for the origin and development of a concept of literary property. Accordingly, this history of copyright suggests that there is an essential connection between the rise of capitalism, the extension of commodity relations into literary and artistic domains, and the emergence of the printing press.

The first section of this chapter looks for evidence of intellectual property rights in ancient and medieval times. In a second section, an analysis of the dawn of capitalism and the development of the printing press is linked to the emergence of copyright, a crucial connection that is generally neglected in traditional histories. The evolution of copyright in England and the United States forms the central focus of the third section, which includes a significant revision and expansion of previous copyright histories that explore the connection between John Locke and the articulation of literary property rights. Lyman Patterson argued that a historical analysis of copyright "removes obstacles -- long-continued acceptance of certain ideas, self-interest, and the pressing need to resolve immediate problems -- which may be present when analysis occurs in a wholly contemporary context."2 It also provides the occasion to compare the earliest ideas concerning copyright to current copyright practices, as well as patterns of ownership and control of intellectual and artistic creativity.

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