I came across a remarkable document this week when doing some historical research around reversion of rights to authors. It’s a draft Bill, advanced in England in 1737 – and it’s seeking to address some of the very same issues that motivate the Authors’ Interest project.

1737 legislation - first page
The opening page of the draft – ‘An Act for the Encouragement of Learning’, 1737. 

Courtesy of the excellent Primary Sources on Copyright, we can see the full text online. Here’s the bit I found particularly remarkable (extracted below for those who prefer not to wrestle with the old long s):

1737 draft legislation - reversion after 10 years.png

‘And forasmuch as the true Worth of Books and Writings is, in many Cases, not found out till a considerable time after the Publication thereof, and Authors, who are in Necessity, may often be tempted absolutely to sell and alienate the Right, which they will hereby have to the original Copies of the Books which they have composed, before the Value thereof is known, and may thereby put it out of their own power to alter and correct their Compositions, upon maturer Judgment and Reflection; Therefore, be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That from and after the said Twenty fourth Day of June, One thousand seven hundred and thirty seven, no Author shall have power to fell, alienate, assign, or transfer, except by his last Will and Testament, the Right hereby vested in him to the original Copy of any Book, Pamphlet, or Writing, to any Person or Persons whatsoever, for any longer Time than Ten Years, to commence from the Date of such Sale, Alienation, Assignment, or Transfer…’

Thus, this draft legislation recognised:

  • That authors have an information problem, in that neither they (nor publishers) generally know the commercial value of a work at the time they need to enter into a contract to exploit it (we alluded to this in a previous post);
  • That authors very often have to assign their rights at that time.

The proposed solution? Limiting what authors can give away. The legislation envisaged limiting grants to publishers to maximum 10 years in duration, after which rights would revert to authors to re-exploit as they wished – this time with much better knowledge about what the work was worth. The Authors’ Interest project has been exploring similar author-protective restrictions and I will present some ideas around that at my public lecture in Glasgow next month.

The legislation was never passed. Though some countries have introduced other author-protective mechanisms in their copyright laws, Australia isn’t one of them. That these realities were recognised as long ago as 280 years back – and yet we haven’t managed to address them – should give us all something to chew on.


5 thoughts on “What’s old is new again: authors’ problems in 1737 and today

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