Tuesday 23 September 2014

Copyright Wars on a bigger battlefield

In June 2012 this blog reviewed Hollywood's Copyright Wars: from Edison to the Internet, by Peter Decherney.  A new set of copyright war stories has now been published, The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle. Its author is Peter Baldwin (Professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, Global Distinguished Professor at New York University and author of the captivatingly titled The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike).  The two tomes should be expected to have some common ground, since both deal with Hollywood, but the battlefield in this volume, as its title suggests, is considerably wider.

This blogger has not yet seen a review copy, so he quotes from the publishers' website:
Today’s copyright wars can seem unprecedented. Sparked by the digital revolution that has made copyright—and its violation—a part of everyday life, fights over intellectual property have pitted creators, Hollywood, and governments against consumers, pirates, Silicon Valley, and open-access advocates. But while the digital generation can be forgiven for thinking the dispute between, for example, the publishing industry and Google is completely new, the copyright wars in fact stretch back three centuries—and their history is essential to understanding today’s battles. The Copyright Wars—the first major trans-Atlantic history of copyright from its origins to today—tells this important story.

Charles Dickens
Peter Baldwin explains why the copyright wars have always been driven by a fundamental tension. Should copyright assure authors and rights holders lasting claims, much like conventional property rights, as in Continental Europe? Or should copyright be primarily concerned with giving consumers cheap and easy access to a shared culture, as in Britain and America? The Copyright Wars describes how the Continental approach triumphed, dramatically increasing the claims of rights holders. The book also tells the widely forgotten [by some, perhaps, but not by anyone who has taken an interest in Charles Dickens] story of how America went from being a leading copyright opponent and pirate in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to become the world’s intellectual property policeman in the late twentieth. As it became a net cultural exporter and its content industries saw their advantage in the Continental ideology of strong authors’ rights, the United States reversed position on copyright, weakening its commitment to the ideal of universal enlightenment—a history that reveals that today’s open-access advocates are heirs of a venerable American tradition.
Published by Princeton University Press, the book's web page is here.

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