Chapter 2

Copyright and Digital Cultural Heritage: A Brief History of Copyright

Written by Ronan Deazley, April 2017

In this commentary, we provide you with an introduction to the history of copyright in Britain, from the late fifteenth century through to the present day. For relevant commentary on the early history of copyright in other European jurisdictions, such as France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, see Primary Sources on Copyright 1450-1900.

Locating contemporary copyright law and policy within a broader historic sweep is important for at least two reasons. First, it reminds us that there is nothing inevitable about the current parameters of copyright law. That is, copyright is a contingent phenomenon; it represents a set of rules and principles that change over time, and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In this sense, copyright is very much about policy rather than property. Second, and perhaps more important, practitioners that deal with and manage historic documents often need to be familiar with the details of copyright legislation predating the current legal regime. For example, identifying who is the author or owner of the copyright in an historic work can turn on knowledge and understanding of copyright laws that have long since been repealed.

This brief history of copyright is presented in four main sections dealing first with the pre-history of copyright (1476-1695), before considering major developments throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It provides an account of the key moments in the historical development of copyright law in Britain, and offers some insight into the different theoretical and regulatory models that have shaped copyright law and policy over time. The commentary concludes with some observations about the likely impact that withdrawal from the European Union may have on the UK copyright regime. 

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