Table of Contents

Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law

Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law

Research Handbooks in Intellectual Property series

Edited by Isabella Alexander and H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui

There has been an explosion of interest in recent years regarding the origin and of intellectual property law. The study of copyright history, in particular, has grown remarkably in the last twenty years, with a flurry of activity in the last ten. Crucial to this activity has been a burgeoning focus on unpublished primary sources, enabling new and stimulating insights. This Handbook takes stock of the field of copyright history as it stands today, as well as examining potential developments in the future.

Chapter 2: Copyright history in the advocate’s arsenal

Barbara Lauriat

Subjects: law - academic, intellectual property law


In 1966, Benjamin Kaplan delivered the Carpentier Lectures at Columbia University – the basis for his tour de force An Unhurried View of Copyright, in which he succinctly recounted centuries of copyright’s history. He began by observing: As a veteran listener at many lectures by copyright specialists … it is almost obligatory for a speaker to begin by invoking the ‘communications revolution’ of our time, then to pronounce upon the inadequacies of the present copyright act, and finally to encourage all hands to cooperate in getting a Revision Bill passed. He went on to present a fuller view of the history and development of copyright than had been widely appreciated at the time. He delivered a historical narrative in order to show ‘that as things were different in the past, they probably need not be as they are.’ The importance of the history of copyright, to Kaplan, was as an aid to questioning the status quo and a caution against unwarranted conservatism when considering copyright reform. The next communications revolution only three decades later inspired many more lectures along the lines described by Kaplan. But others have followed his lead in looking back at copyright’s history, examining the past communications revolutions that have affected the development of the law of copyright and indeed, as Kaplan observed, started the whole enterprise off in the first place. Using copyright history as the foundation for arguments about the nature and purpose of copyright is not itself a new phenomenon.

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