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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Copyright rows ring down the centuries
Second-books on sale, BBC
Pirated books caused some of the first copyright rows

Record companies warn that internet piracy could spell the end of the music business as we know it. But we've heard these arguments before, from the likes of Dickens and Conan Doyle.
Just as every generation thinks it is the first to discover sex, so every generation thinks it is the first to suffer problems with copyright and piracy.

Music piracy
Sales of pirated music rose 50% in 2001
Total world music pirate market thought to be worth $2.9bn
Source: IFPI
The ubiquity of the net has lent greater urgency to the copyright debate but the basic problem of controlling what happens to creative works has not changed in more than 200 years.

The debates today are about recorded music and movies but a similar debate was being had before the first voice was recorded or first movie premiered.

In 1842 Charles Dickens was on a tour of America reading excerpts from his works to audiences eager to hear the young author.

But Dickens did not limit himself to repeating his own words, he also he used his time behind a lectern to berate audiences for pirating his books.

During one lecture he even accused American publishers of helping to drive Sir Walter Scott to bankruptcy and an early grave because their rampant bootlegging had vastly reduced the royalties he received from US editions of his works.

Charles Dickens, PA
Scornful: Dickens spoke of Hard Times for authors
Despite his attempts to lighten his criticism by saying that American literature would never develop if publishers were free to bootleg the best works from overseas, Dickens was savaged in the US press for his attack.

Piracy was rampant in the US because the country had refused to sign international treaties protecting copyright.

This meant that while British publishers were reluctant to produce books for the US market, Americans seized the "initiative" by pirating best sellers for their home market.

Holmes and the pirates

Dickens wasn't the only author to suffer. Another victim, Wilkie Collins, produced a small booklet entitled "Considerations on the Copyright Question" that condemned "the habitual perpetration, by American citizens, of the act of theft".

Arthur Conan Doyle, PA
Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories were widely pirated in America
It also and drew attention to "the stain which book-stealing has set on the American name".

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's hugely popular Sherlock Holmes stories were also heavily pirated.

"At times the situation became almost frantic, as competing publishers would endeavour to produce editions before others could saturate the market," said Don Redmond, author of a book about the pirating of the Holmes stories.

In 1891 an American copyright law did come into force although it provided little compensation for existing authors as it didn't apply to works published before that date.

Late signing

But at the insistence of the American print unions the act demanded that, to gain copyright protection, the first editions of a book had to be printed in the US. This is why we have American editions of books now.

CD keyboard
CD burners have brought piracy to the home
In 1986, the US finally signed the Berne Convention, first drawn up in the closing years of the 19th Century, which guarantees the same rights to the creators of works across national boundaries.

This, despite the fact it had already agreed to recognise a less binding treaty which left the printers' clause intact.

Rampant piracy for eager audiences, the lamentations of authors, lost royalties and the desperate efforts of an industry to protect itself from such practices, have an all too modern ring.

It could describe the music industry now.

Who will benefit?

Dr Catherine Seville, an expert on copyright history from the University of Cambridge, says the most modern aspect of the Victorian wrangles over copyright was that it was driven by technology.

Gnutella grab
Sites such as Gnutella aid file sharing
"When they started producing The Times newspaper by steam it was said that printers were going to go bust and die of starvation."

"New technologies do mean you can make copies more easily," she says, "but it's never quite as bad as the doomsters say."

But, she points out, what has changed is who reaps the benefits of better protection for an artist's works and who is pushing for changes.

This time it is not just the artists struggling for due credit. Changes to copyright laws or the use of technology to stop copying are not going to benefit musicians or struggling movie makers.

Instead it's the big guns - the music publishers and record companies - who most fear the menace of the CD burner, says Dr Seville. And it is they that stand to reap the biggest rewards from new copyright legislation.

See also:

01 May 02 | Entertainment
17 May 02 | Business
30 Apr 02 | UK
08 Sep 01 | Science/Nature
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15 Apr 02 | dot life
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