A Shifting Empire

A Shifting Empire

100 Years of the Copyright Act 1911

Edited by Uma Suthersanen and Ysolde Gendreau

The 1911 Copyright Act, often termed the ‘Imperial Copyright Act’, changed the jurisprudential landscape in respect of copyright law, not only in the United Kingdom but also within the then Empire. This book offers a bird’s eye perspective of why and how the first global copyright law launched a new order, often termed the ‘common law copyright system’.

Chapter 1: The first global copyright act

Uma Suthersanen

Subjects: law - academic, intellectual property law


Cries for copyright reform in the nineteenth century emerged from various domestic quarters in Britain, including authors and publishers, who were concerned with the growing piracy of English language works. Legislators had begun to heed their opinions on the dismal state of literary property. The chief concern was that copyright law had become too complicated. Nevertheless the process of consolidation and reform of the copyright law in Britain dragged on interminably from the first efforts in the 1830s to 1911.1 Why was this so? This question is explored through a contextual analysis of the period that preceded the adoption of the 1911 Copyright Act. The first part of the chapter looks at the evolution of British authors and publishers as important and influential socio-economic classes. As their influence rose, so did their lobbying for domestic and international copyright reform. Much of the discussion concerning the reform of copyright law was also expressed in terms of the British Empire and the need to contain piratical acts which arose from the expansion of trade within colonial markets. Another suggested reason for the delay of the enactment of the 1911 Copyright Act was the need for the British government to come to terms with its role as an international legislator for a global British polity. Britain had to accept not only her international obligations, but also to determine how the Empire’s unitary copyright area was to be diplomatically and legally maintained, especially in light of the problems arising from international markets.