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.