To preface what Thomas Macaulay said, let’s start with a few things James Boyle said in his 1996 article “Sold Out” (from an earlier blog entry).

For over about 10 years, or actually alot more than that, we have been trying to

figure out how the world changes when information becomes one of the most important forms of wealth and power: when everything from the pattern of purchases revealed by credit card receipts to the pattern of your D.N.A. can become a byte of information and can be bought and sold in the marketplace. …

The first effect of this transformation is that intellectual property rights become very important.

Around the world, corporations are lobbying their governments, demanding more expansive copyright, patent, trademark and data-base rights.

And throwing around a lot of money to do so.

And governments are unfortunately complying, granting monopolies over information and information products. …

Also, as James Boyle also noted back in 1996 in his article Sold Out (and it’s not gotten better with age) this situation

…makes the monopolies of the 19th-century robber barons look like penny-ante operations.

He further stated,

Intellectual property rights are being expanded dramatically, sometimes in surprising directions.

We are in the middle of an information land grab and no one seems to have noticed.

Everyone is complaining about an intellectual property system that has expanded out of control.

Thomas Macaulay, back in the 1800s, in his elequent style, and understanding of human nature, when refuting his fellow before the House of Commons, made his case with many persuasive arguments. I will just cap on a few to pique interest here. There are many more in the article.

Thomas Macaulay said:

Thus, then, stands the case. It is good that authors should be remunerated; and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly. Yet monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.

He also said:

The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers.

To further press his point that the extended copyright to the degree that was being proposed at that time (which by the way was similar to our current law) was a very bad idea, he stated the following and I think we all can identify with this scenario right now, today, particularly in the US and potentially in the UK now:

At present the holder of copyright has the public feeling on his side. Those who invade copyright are regarded as knaves who take the bread out of the mouths of deserving men. Everybody is well pleased to see them restrained by the law, and compelled to refund their ill-gotten gains. No tradesman of good repute will have anything to do with such disgraceful transactions. Pass this law: and that feeling is at an end. Men very different from the present race of piratical booksellers will soon infringe this intolerable monopoly. Great masses of capital will be constantly employed in the violation of the law. Every art will be employed to evade legal pursuit; and the whole nation will be in the plot.

Remember too that, when once it ceases to be considered as wrong and discreditable to invade literary property, no person can say where the invasion will stop. The public seldom makes nice distinctions. The wholesome copyright which now exists will share in the disgrace and danger of the new copyright which you are about to create. And you will find that, in attempting to impose unreasonable restraints on the reprinting of the works of the dead, you have, to a great extent, annulled those restraints which now prevent men from pillaging and defrauding the living.

From the Sunny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (Wiki):

Copyright owners successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress for an extension of copyright, to provide for the same term of protection as exists in Europe.

The act was named after the late Congressman Sonny Bono, who had favored this position as a songwriter and filmmaker even prior to his entry into politics.

Both houses of the United States Congress passed the act as Public Law 105-298 with a voice vote, making it impossible to determine who voted for or against. President Bill Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 on October 21, 1998.

As a consequence of the act, no copyrighted works will enter into public domain due to term expiration in the United States until January 1, 2019, when all works created in 1923 will enter into public domain.

There is much more in the articles:

Macaulay on copyright law

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Wiki)

Copyright – US (Wiki)

Public Domain (Wiki)

United States Copyright Act of 1976 (Wiki)

Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (Wiki) (Mickey Mouse Law)

Fair Use (Wiki) or Fair dealing (Wiki)

As well as James Boyle’s articles listed in a blog entry a few days ago.

In closing, I will quote Eric Flint’s introduction to Thomas Macaulay’s presentations before the House of Commons:

These are two speeches given by Thomas Macaulay in Parliament in 1841, when the issue of copyright was being hammered out. They are, no other word for it, brilliant — and cover everything fundamental which is involved in the issue. (For those not familiar with him, Macaulay would eventually become one of the foremost British historians of the 19th century. His History of England remains in print to this day, as do many of his other writings.)

I strongly urge people to read them. Yes, they’re long — almost 10,000 words — and, yes, Macaulay’s oratorical style is that of an earlier era. (Although, I’ve got to say, I’m partial to it. Macaulay orated before the era of “sound bytes.” Thank God.)

But contained herein is all wisdom on the subject, an immense learning — and plenty of wit. So relax, pour yourself some coffee (or whatever beverage of your choice) (or whatever, preferably not hallucinogenic), and take the time to read it. The “oh-so-modern” subject of “electronic piracy” contains no problems which Macaulay didn’t already address, at least in essence, more than a century and a half ago.

I should note that Macaulay’s position, slightly modified, did become the basis of copyright law in the English speaking world. And remained so (at least in the US) for a century and a half — until, on a day of infamy just a few years ago, the Walt Disney Corporation and their stooges in Congress got the law changed to the modern law, which extends copyright for a truly absurd period of time. Which — those who forget history are doomed to repeat it — is a return to the position advocated by Macaulay’s (now long forgotten) opponent in the debate.

NOTE: Originally posted: May 2005 (recreated from mangled original bambismusings.blogspot.com)

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