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Copyright History
Small Victory

Tuesday, February 22 2000, was the 226th anniversary of the decision by the English House of Lords in Donaldson v. Becket, 17 Parl. Hist. Eng. 953 (1774) in which the lords, by twenty-two votes to eleven, dissolved an injunction against Alexander Donaldson, thereby laying down the law that copyright in published works was not perpetual, but was limited to the term provided by statute. When news of the lords' decision reached Edinburgh, Scotland, there was:

great rejoicing...upon victory over literary property: bonfires and illuminations, ordered though by a mob, with drum and two pipes. (Robert Forbes, _The Lyon in Mourning_ III, 294, quoted in John Murray, "Some Civil Cases of James Boswell," Juridical Review 52, 222-251(1940), at 248-249.)

The decision temporarily checked a decades-long attempt on the part of the London booksellers to use the common law and the notion of "authors' rights" to reestablish something like the privileges they had enjoyed in the days of the Stationers' monopoly. The booksellers' true regard for authors was questioned by Attorney General Thurlow, who spoke as follows before the Lords on February 4, 1774:

     The booksellers [Attorney-General Thurlow] observed... had not, till 
     lately, ever concerned themselves about authors, but had generally 
     confined the substance of their prayers to the legislature, to the 
     security of their own property; nor would they probably have, of 
     late years, introduced the authors as parties in their claims to the 
     common law right of exclusively multiplying copies, had not they
     found it necessary to give a colourable face to their monopoly...He 
     concluded his speech with...a hope, that as the lords of session in 
     Scotland had freed that country from a monopoly which took its 
     rise from the chimerical idea of the actuality of literary property, 
     their lordships, whom he addressed, would likewise, by a decree of 
     a similar nature, rescue the cause of literature and authorship from 
     the hands of a few monopolizing booksellers, in whom the 
     perquisites of other men's labors, the fruits of their inventions, and 
     result of their ingenuity, were at present wholly centered.
     (Donaldson v. Becket, 17 Parl. Hist. Eng. 953, at 954-955.)

The mention of the Scots Lords was a reference to the case of Hinton v. Donaldson, which had been decided in July 1773, with the Lords of Session holding, by eleven votes to one, that copyright did not exist in the law of Scotland except as provided for by the statute of 8 Anne.

In our days, when the public domain's cultured despisers hold the public domain up to ridicule and contempt, I find it inspiring to remember freedom's past victories. Doing so gives me hope, even in the present dark hour, that truth and freedom may yet prevail.

The order in Donaldson v. Becket reads as follows:

        February 22... Ordered, That the Decree be
        reversed without costs of suit.

        List of those noblemen who divided on the
        above question for reversing the Decree:
        dukes of Roxburgh, Bolton; earls of Denbigh,
        Gower, Sandwich, Spencer, Radnor, Jersey,
        Northington, Oxford, Abercorn, Loudon,
        Roseberry; viscounts Say and Sele, Weymouth,
        Falmouth; lords Camden, Ravensworth,
        Montague; bishops of St. Asaph, Litchfield
        and Coventry.--For confirming the decree:
        dukes of NOrthumberland, Portland; marquis of
        Rockingham; earls of Carlisle, Fitswilliam;
        viscounts Dudley, Torrington; lords Bruce,
        Lyttelton; archbishop of Canturbury; bishop
        of Chester.

Reproduced with the kind consent of Tim Phillips at Responsibility for mistakes (if any) is mine.

Statutory copyright was introduced in the U.K. with the Statute of Anne (1710), according to the then existing calendar, it was 1709. The text of the act can be found at here. calendar, it was 1710.

here is the explanation of Professor L. Ray Patterson, in "Copyright in Historical Perspective (1968), at footnote 3, on p. 3:

   The statute was enacted in the calendar year 1709 and became
   effective in April 1710.  At this time, however, the beginning 
   of the year in England was March 25.  It was not until 1752 that 
   January 1st was designated as the beginning of the year in England 
   by the Calendar year Act of 1750...  By modern reckoning, the 
   statute was both enacted and became effective in 1710."

so, for whoever wants to cling to the old English calendar, happy new year!

See now also The Statute of Anne prepared by Karl-Erik Tallmo who is writing a book on copyright history.
Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
All information on this site is in general and summary form only. The content of any page on this site may be out of date and or incomplete, and you should not not rely directly upon it. Take direct professional legal advice which reflects your own particular situation.
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Copyright and Database Rights: David Swarbrick 2012
18 October 2013 189 18 October 2013