Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy of Intellectual Property

By Ronald V. Bettig | Go to book overview

explicitly that it did not intend to prohibit publication and sale of works in the United States that were first written, printed, or published abroad. Ploman and Hamilton argued that this piracy provision can be seen "as the action of a developing country to protect its burgeoning culture while exploiting the cultural products of more developed nations."120

However, it was again not immediately clear after passage of the Act whether the author's common law copyright had been supplanted. The notion of natural rights in inventive and intellectual creativity was losing its resonance by the early nineteenth century. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this tension in Wheaton v. Peters ( 1834), which set the terms for U.S. copyright protection for the next 150 years. The Wheaton decision drew heavily from Donaldson v. Beckett, concluding that copyright was a statutory right created by Congress and was "secured" by following the formalities of registration, notice, and deposit.121 The Court thereby rejected the notion that an inventor or author had a perpetual right in the patent or copyright as well as the idea that certain legal rights of authors are retained even after publication. In reaching its decision, the Court framed copyright litigation as a matter of protecting the copyright owner's exclusive rights to exploit and profit from effort and risk put into the work versus protecting public access to literary creativity.

By concluding that copyright was a statutory right of limited duration, the Court struck against the notion of unlimited monopoly that a natural, perpetual right implied. Thus, once the statutory period of protection expired, the published, copyrighted works passed into the public domain. An author did retain a common law copyright, but only as long as the work remained unpublished. This fact again highlights the central role of capital in bringing a work to the public, a process through which the publisher takes control of and benefits the most from the author's copyright privileges. This pattern is subsequently replicated as copyright law is extended each time a new form or medium of artistic and literary creativity and expression is developed and deployed, from etched and engraved prints in 1802 to computer software programs in 1980. The result has been the concentration of ownership of the copyrights to cultural and literary artifacts with the highest exchange value in the hands of the capitalist class, which will be demonstrated in the next chapter.


Notes
1.
Bruce Bugbee, The Genesis of American Patent and Copyright Law, Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1967; Lyman Patterson, Copyright in Historical Perspective, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968; George Putnam, "Literary Property: An Historical Sketch", in G. Putnam (ed.), The Question of Copyright, New York: Knickerbocker, 1896, pp. 351-411; Royce F. Whale, Copyright, London: Longman, 1971.
2.
Patterson, p. 223.
3.
Harold Innis, Empire and Communication, New York: Oxford University Press, 1950; Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951.

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