2015-07-14 No Copyright

My recent discussion of the Mass Effect RPG and the reform of copyright led me to pick Piracy by Adrian Johns from the shelf and start reading. On page 53 he talks about the French revolution and copyright. In 1789, the revolutionaries abolished literary property. How did it turn out? It was terrible. Everything was reprinted, with cheap tools, at breakneck speed, anything to make a quick buck. What was left was newspapers, tracts, and compilations of old books.

You can read more about it in Carla Hesse’s book Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1810. It is available online, for free, from the California Digital Library. There, in the chapter The First Legislative Initiative (1789–1791), you’ll find the discussion between Denis Diderot defending the Paris Book Guild’s view of their privileges as a form of property and the Marquis de Condorcet arguing that ideas don’t originate in individuals but in a society and could therefore not belong to an individual. The only individual contribution was style, not substance.

This lofty discussion notwithstanding, the main problem for the people in power at the time was not the crumbling print business but that in their race to the bottom a lot of libelous and seditious material was being printed. Anything to make a quick buck. So, how can we fix the market of book printing and introduce accountability? The 1790 initiative by Sieyès proposed a limited property right of up to ten years after the author’s death. It was never voted upon. There was too much criticism. And so we come to another chapter, The Second Initiative (1791–1793). In 1793, a proposal by Chénier passed. It did more or less what the first initiative had said: a limited property right of up to ten years after the author’s death. It only differed in a few minor issues: libel and sedition were no longer mentioned, and old perpetual privileges from the old days were abolished. It was called the “declaration of the rights of genius”.

You’ll note that the discussion between Denis Diderot and the Marquis de Condorcet remained unresolved. Carla Hesse says:

This notion of a public domain, of democratic access to a common cultural inheritance on which no particular claim could be made, bore the traces not of Diderot, but of Condorcet’s faith that truths were given in nature and, although mediated through individual minds, belonged ultimately to all. Progress in human understanding depended not on private knowledge claims, but on free and equal access to enlightenment. An author’s property rights were conceived as recompense for his service as an agent of enlightenment through publication of his ideas.

– Carla Hesse, Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1810, p. 121



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