Historical Background of Copyright

ImageDuring the nineteenth century there were fierce debates in both the public arena and the House of Commons about mental/ intellectual labour and copyright law. How should this mental labour be rewarded in a financial sense and how long before the creators identity fades and the work passes into the public domain. Intellectual property was becoming a form of “stake-holding property”[1] The fight for intellectual property rights become increasingly a fight for ownership of the creators professional future.

William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Mark Twain, and later Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot all were concerned about the property of their labour. Female writers of the 19th century viewed the fruits of their labour from more of a consumer/educative view, with much less emphasis if at all on the monetary and professional status that publication of ones works brought, whereas the male view was one fought largely on payment and recognition of the fruits of ones labour and public recognition. Although perhaps from different perspectives, and which side of the Atlantic one lived. “The wives of New York could become inventers and writers in their own right, while the wives of England were bonded to their masters”.[2] The argument about the social value of mental labour continued to develop into a contractual model of citizenship.[3]

Thomas Carlyle wrote to the House of Commons when the Copyright Bill was being debated in the 1839, saying that “he had personally petitioned Parliament in support of the Copyright Bill, stressing his own originality as a writer who wrote books by the effort of his own. He suggested that in order to rise from the babbling mass, the hero must display this elusive quality of originality.”[4]

So intellectual property law, even today is still very much socially constructed. Similar arguments are still being waged here in the 21st century that were originally debated in Talfourds Copyright Bill’s of the 1830’s in the House of Commons. The emergence of a consumer-based, rather than a producer-based model of intellectual labour.[5]  This emergence is especially relevant to copyright and trade mark law today.


[1] Pettitt, C. Patent inventions: Intellectual property and the Victorian novel. Oxford, U.P. 2004.p 4

[2] Ibid p.205

[3] Ibid.p. 4

[4] Thomas Carlyle sent off his petition to Thomas Talfourd on 28 February 1839. Letters XI, 36 in Pettitt, C. Patent inventions: Intellectual property and the Victorian novel. Oxford, U.P. 2004.p 7

[5] Pettitt, C. op cit. p. 26

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Filed under Copyright Law, Cyberspace law, Intellectual Property Law

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