Copyright turns 300

To commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first modern copyright law, the British Council asked a lot of people with strong ideas about copyright, from the CEO of Random House to the founder of Wikipedia, to remark on what copyright is for and how it might be improved. Here's the short essay I contributed:
If there's one lie more corrosive to creativity above all others, it is the lie of romantic individual originality. Today, 'copyright curriculum' warns schoolchildren not to be 'copycats' - to come up with their own original notions.

We are that which copies. Three or four billion years ago, by some process that we don't understand, molecules began to copy themselves. We are the distant descendants of those early copyists - copying is in our genes. We have a word for things that don't copy: 'dead'.

Walk the streets of Florence and you'll find a 'David' on every corner: because for half a millennium, Florentine sculptors have learned their trade by copying (but try to take a picture of 'David' on his plinth and you'll be tossed out by a security guard who wants to end this great tradition in order to encourage you to buy a penny postcard).

I learned to write by copying. In 1977, when I was six, my father took me to 'Star Wars'. I couldn't figure out how a made-up story could be so exciting, so I went home, stapled some paper together and trimmed it to book size, and wrote out the story as best I remembered it, doing it over and over again as I strove to unpick it.

Today, I earn my living by copying: taking ideas that excite me and combining them in ways that are mine, but never wholly mine.

If copyright law is to truly nurture art and creativity, rather than merely lining the pockets of the last generation of copyists who now declare themselves to be pure of all replication and wholly original from the first word to the last, it *must* recognize and celebrate the wonderful thing that is copying.

Copyright 1710-2010 "For the encouragement of learning"


  1. That is a beautiful thesis! and well articulated – though I don’t think altogether original..

  2. A friend of mine once said: “There is no original music. If you put any three chords together – and it doesn’t sound horrible – Bach already did it.”

  3. I thought you might be interested to see a superb letter to The Times this morning on the issue, (no, it isn’t directly about the 300th anniversary of copyright, but it is about sharing / caring / copyfighting etc!), for which I can take no credit:

    …Mike Higgins bemoans the fact that technological change is making his industry less profitable. While this is undoubtedly unpleasant for those who suffer from it, it is neither a new phenomenon nor one that the government should be attempting to prevent. The introduction of the printing press put the scribes out of a job, the railways superseded canals and motor vehicles in turn ended the golden age of the railways. You cannot legislate against the advance of technology.

    Copyright was never conceived as a means to give content generators a monopoly on the distribution of their material at the expense of consumers. Rather, it is intended to balance the needs of both consumers and creators in a way that benefits both. It is in the nature of humans to lend, borrow and share. We are inherently both a creative and sociable species.

    We have all lent or borrowed books, DVDs or CDs to or from friends, even though by doing so we cause a putative lost sale to the suppliers. File sharing is nothing more than the same social instinct expressed through modern technology.

    If the suppliers’ losses are larger because of file sharing that is because the sharing technology is more accessible and their business model is more out of date, not because the underlying principle is any more wrong. The solution is to adapt the business model to the new technology, not to resist it. Home taping did not kill music, and sharing is not stealing.

    Mark Goodge

    Evesham, Worcs

    From The Times

    1. Read the meaning. He isn’t discussing copyright directly, but the fact that all humans copy all the time, and how absurd it is to even want to prevent it.

  4. Yesterday’s issue of Science magazine includes the results of an algorithmic social learning competition. The question is what’s the most effective way to learn in a social context? The competition was organized somewhat like the tournament that discovered the Tit-for-Tat strategy for playing Prisoners’ Dilemma.

    “Why Copy Others? Insights from the Social Learning Strategies Tournament”,;328/5975/208

  5. Let’s consider for a moment a devil’s advocate stance. What about those that have original ideas that find themselves in a corporate climate that does not like new ideas. I’ve seen first hand very original fiction works that were butchered (large unnamed company) to resemble others creative works. All because it was believed to drive down the investment risk if it was more familiar.

    It doesn’t. Algorithim learning should be celebrated, and encouraged. But I would not stress the joys of the formula as much. These nothing romantic about watching an individual with original thoughts and ideas slip slowly into mediocrity.

  6. We need copyright term to be reduced to 10 years. – I’ve no problem with people getting a reward for their creativity, but the 70 year copyright term is too long.

    Creatives are able to come up with good ideas that old copyrights expiring after 10 years wouldn’t matter, because new writings, art, etc. are in place in the meantime.

    1. But what of a long running series? Should the copyright be dated from the first installment or the last? After all, a series could exceed ten years: The Simpsons is past 20 and going strong.

  7. I read this quote by Richard Stallman a while back.

    The idea of copyright did not exist in ancient times, when authors frequently copied other authors at length in works of non-fiction. This practice was useful, and is the only way many authors’ works have survived even in part.

    So true!

  8. If you think about it, everything is based on experiences. Those experiences seed your imagination. Just as computers take input and produce output, we do the same. We take input via our senses (consuming what exists now and historically) and create output based upon those things. That unique algorithm (called creativity) in our heads shapes the output, but the origins remain the same. If there was nothing around us; nothing to see, hear, taste, smell and feel, we would have nothing of value that could be created for others to see, hear, taste, smell and feel. Creativity is a circle that expands infinitely around us and because of us. Everyone and every thing plays a part, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. If there were copyright laws put into place that were ironclad, immutable, and beyond manipulation or loopholes eventually that circle would break and we would die (if not physically, then evolutionary). As Cory says, those things that do not copy die. Intellectual property is a myth, nothing belongs only to you.

  9. funny how H-wood is so bent out of shape about copyright, but they make the same movies over and over:

    also, I sampled from a big H-wood film (before the film was released) and used it creatively in a comedy called ‘the infringement: a comedy in one (dmc)Act’ (2000)
    it’s on vimeo, no one came after me yet, because it didn’t go viral? did it too early is all

  10. On the other hand —

    Things that you create and post online belong to YOU. Posts on this forum are the property of the creator, not the blog owner.

    And accordingly, if for some reason the blog owner decides to deny your access to their site, the material you’ve provided that site is protected by copyright. It’s YOUR intellectual property, not the site owner’s.

    — Having been ousted from a few online forums . . .

  11. I take your point, Cory, but, discounting souvenir stands, I only saw one David on a corner in Florence — outside the Palazzo Vecchio — which was made in 1910. I freely took plenty of photos, too.

    The security guards who stop you from taking photos of the original David in the Galleria dell’Accademia aren’t doing it because of copyright — they’re doing it for the same reason I can’t come into your house and take pictures of your stuff: it’s on private property, and they can set whatever rules they want. I’m personally of the opinion that they’re being money-grubbing jerks by not letting people take photos, since David is a world treasure, but it’s not a copyright issue. The same thing happens any time a rich person buys a work of art and hangs it in their livingroom. If you want to make a copy, you can take photos of the copy outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

    Florence’s problem is that it’s a tourist trap, designed to squeeze Euros out of the pockets of tourists. But it’s so saturated with incredible art and architecture that it’s hard to complain. There are astonishing original masterpieces sitting right out in the open air, in the Loggia della Signoria: Cellini’s Perseus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, etc.

    1. Well, given my experiences at the Musee du Louvre and other Museums around the world; perhaps not being able to take pictures is a good thing in some ways. My wife and I are probably two nameless strangers in one million scrapbooks scattered around the world. The endless photo’s were annoying and a distraction from taking in and appreciating the art. To be fair, I am not sure that the art could be truly appreciated even without the endless stream of flashes and camera wielding tourists (all trying to get the perfect picture of — insert art here –). In some ways, an art book is better than the crowds, noise, and otherwise unruly people.

  12. If you put any three chords together – and it doesn’t sound horrible – Bach already did it

    This is a point I frequently make to people who say “where did copy that from?” – that they’re talking about a simple chord sequence, and that there is a very small number of chord sequences which sound remotely good, and that every single one of them was used by the 1700s.

    1. Well, that is just a little facile to me (or i am being overly pedantic). Progressions yes, but if you include time signatures and phrasing the permutations do grow, allowing for creation of genuinely unique music still. But yeah, i call caca poopoo-head onthose claiming a sequence of notes as unique

  13. woo, I intend on burning yellow some pages from a yellow legal pad in memoria today.
    some of the best advice for fiction that I was given when i was young was that you start by copying the style of those you admire… i’ve always found it useful.
    as a poet, ‘copying’ and I don’t mean plagairism is so pivotal to the entire spectrum, from classic to modern speculative. We call it homage, or reference or allusion. I found out recently that it *is* illegal under american copy law, fair use does not cover things that may affect future sales, or public interpretation of the work… omg. think of Milton’s right’s holders suing Shelley, or Dante’s right’s holders suing Milton… it’s nuts now.
    not that anybody reads poety… eh.

  14. The most vicious resistance to copying is arguably within academic circles, not commercial… just sayin’.

    1. Not within the academic circles as such but at the boundery where academic and comercial overlap. A pure academic simply discovers things to be attributed with that idea for the rest of recorded civalisation and to get grants to pay for their work. In a business area appart from brand names and the company image there isnt much that can be protected as it is majorly customer interaction (a resteraunt, airport etc) or a freely avalable idea such as a computer or tv (the idea is freely avalable but certain components require academic development which can then be copyrighted) or art (each artist creates something unique).
      At the boundery though you have a mixture of academic and comercial which can stifel any further accademic progress in that field and potentialy threatening peoples lives.
      Im not sure if any of the genes linked to diabetes are copyrighted, but as an example say someone enters a hypo or hyper and is admitted into a hospital, but the cause of symptoms cant be decided (maybe because of family history). Then the test may have to be run in a specific lab otherwise the hospital is at risk kind of like before this
      I know diabeties is a commonley known about diesese and can in most cases be easily identified but im sure there is some obscure genetic diesease which requires testing by a certain lab for large price.

      1. I don’t know if it’s the same in your country but plagiarism can get you thrown out of university in mine… that’s pretty extreme compared to a cease-and-desist letter.

  15. The whole thing about “Bach already did these chords” is such freshman-level thinking!

    Look, copyright isn’t meant to stop people *copying. It’s meant to stop them *stealing. Big difference.

    And those who are most opposed to it are generally those who don’t have to worry about getting paid for their creations. Or people who want to be able to steal.

    1. “The whole thing about “Bach already did these chords” is such freshman-level thinking!”

      I don’t mean to criticize your little tirade, but the word you were looking for is ‘sophomoric’.

      1. Raj77, perhaps meaningless is a better word. The claim is akin to saying that all the integers between 1 and 2000 have been used before. It may be true but it’s not a particularly useful truth.

  16. As usual Cory makes some great points but “a David on every corner” is a ridiculous overstatement, at least if he’s referring to full-sized copies of Michaelangelo’s statue.

    I’ve been to Florence multiple times and can think of only two copies in any place of prominence- the marble one on the site where the original once stood and a bronze version on the hilltop at Piazzale Michelangelo. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single copy that dates earlier than the 20th century.

  17. i’m assuming we can’t sing happy birthday to copyright, because well that’s copyright isn’t it?

    1. Nice irony. Fortunately copyright does not apply to our vocal cords. We can sing copyrighted songs all we want; we just can’t make our own recordings and distribute them without paying royalties.

  18. Ah! Adze, you very special munchkin, did you not know that plagiarism is a function of the poor.?

  19. This is not about plagiarism (which is not creative and is wrong) or the rights of one to be paid for their work (because they do), this is about how (to some extent) there is a little bit of everything that came before in what we do today; and in turn someone will use a little bit of what we do today on tomorrow. You simply cannot produce any output without any input.

    To what extent this allows someone full intellectual property rights is the debate. How can you own something completely for which you borrowed from someone who came before?

    In my mind, you can’t own something completely. There is no such thing as “ownership” in the natural world anyway. This is term that is coined and contrived by humans.

    Having said that, this thing called “ownership” is vital to our society. We simply would not have order without it. The real world is chaos and we attempt to make order of that in many ways, of which this is one.

    As with most things in life, I suspect that balance is the key. We cannot have full and complete ownership without the freedom of sharing. We cannot have full and complete freedom of sharing without ownership.

    In some ways, this balance already exists. People own but yet there is sharing.

    The problem (as usual), is that humans are attempting to screw this up beyond what already exists today. A prime example is what is happening or happened in England. Without balance, the scales will tip and then there is chaos.

  20. I’ve been reading and listening to these anti-copyright arguments for some time now, and have tried to do so with an open mind. But with this latest manifesto, I think I’ll have to give up. I’m sorry, but it just comes across as reactionary and kooky. Today, great (and I suspect increasing) numbers of real and decent people depend on intellectual property as the fruit of their labors to make a living and feed their families, to an extent I’m pretty sure is unprecedented in human history. That is to say, most of my friends don’t tend crops, make shoes, or catch fish to generate income, as they might if this were the 1700s. Rather, their “produce” is intangible. They deserve reasonable protection for their wares like anyone else. Do corporate interests unreasonably manipulate the rules in ways I find repressive and offensive? Yes. But that’s a problem (one of many) with soulless, abusive corporations, not with the fundamental principles of copyright per se. No reasonable person has a problem with a 6-year-old copying down the Star Wars story. But even I would have a problem if that 6-year-old tried to sell the copy of the story as his own work. As far as “copycats” go, when I was a kid in school, it made me angry when lazy people would stall, copy off my paper, and get as good a grade as I did. Was I wrong? Does anyone actually think that kind of behavior is okay? I’ve listened, and I’ve listened–but Cory’s arguments just don’t hold water in actual practice.

    1. Exactly the opposite of my experience. “No reasonable person has a problem with a 6-year-old copying down the Star Wars story” Actually, under present copyright law this is a crime. And what if the six year old gives copies away for free instead of selling it? (or passing it in for a grade!) Obviously you haven’t read Cory’s arguments, or you wouldn’t propose such inane examples (Why do you hate 6 yros so much anyways ;))

  21. maybe copyright should only be permitted in works that contain no discernible pre-existing material.

  22. “No reasonable person has a problem with a 6-year-old copying down the Star Wars story.”

    But see, -the problem is, we’re not dealing with a reasonable person, we’re dealing unreasonable corporations. Which send takedown notices to some woman who posts a video of her child dancing to the sound of copyrighted audio. But it is obvious that eventually the sheer size of hard drives will make copyright as we know it obsolete.

  23. Mr. Doctorow: I have taken an electronic copy of your short essay so that my future English students can read and write about it. You make an excellent point about the need for both copyright itself and the reasonable regulation thereof. Responsible citizens should always question the reasons behind laws like this, and such laws should always be under consideration. I think it’s difficult for students to understand the balance necessary between providing a reference for every sentence and wholesale lifting of another person’s work, and I also think your essay helps point out that difficulty. Thank you.

  24. a denial of ‘romantic individual orginality’ from someone who gave the world microserfs and gen-x is pretty awesome. I loved those books, and anyways, I’m a romantic.

  25. re: academia

    The resistance is not to “copying.” In fact, in general everybody wants to be “copied” as much as possible. The objection is to plagiarism, copying while pretending not to be original, which is entirely different, and rightfully ruins the careers of those caught doing it.

    Incidentally, while I think that copyright laws are too severe, and enforcing them is very often counterproductive for the producers of “content,” I still think they have a reasonable right to do so, wrongheaded or no.

  26. I like that the British Council’s request is for comments on what copyright is and should be for. Too often, discussions get caught up in the current statutes and limitations in law and by precedent in case law without considering the bigger picture purposes and effects. We tried to articulate a take on that with a schoolhouse rock style music video a few years back that bb folks might like:

    We tried to get across the main idea of copyright as a way to balance users’ and owners’ rights, rather than a simple IP control claim for the latter.

    I find Cory’s mini-essay moving, and familiar, as a rendition of the need to copy as part of creativity, and of the infringement on the creative process that recent copyright enforcement insists. Thanks!

  27. My mother tongue is Spanish and the “copyright” or rather license to print notice in Don Quixote (pronounced Quihote, that “x” is an old style “j”) is always on my mind when you mention “copyright”.

    Yes, it was a license in Spain and in those times, granted if the work contained no material that offended the Faith and the institutions of the realm. It gave the author the exclusive right to print his work and sell it with whoever he saw fit, for ten years inside the realm (of Castille). No more.

    It was never intended to, and could not prevent sequels, derivative or inspired work, adaptation into other art forms, fan fiction, lampooning, satire of the destructive kind or translation and publication in other parts of the world. There has been a lot of that in the centuries after Cervantes. Some quite famous and some less famous, by authors just as well-known as Cervantes and lesser-known.

    Cervantes got really mad about the Avellaneda’s Quixote and pretty much tore “Avellaneda” up in his Second Part of Don Quixote’s adventures. Which he wrote, most probably spurred by Avellaneda’s appearance. Maybe, Cervantes would have died (1616) without publishing the Second Part (1615), were it not for Avellaneda.

    But no, he could not sic the courts after the publisher, or after “Avellaneda”, claiming that the character was only his to play with. Maybe 17th Century Spain was reasonable about copyright. In at least this thing the world has gone worse.

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