Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law
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Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law

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 Crucial to this activity has been a burgeoning focus on unpublished primary sources, enabling new and stimulating insights.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.
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Chapter 10: Determining infringement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Britain: ‘A ticklish job’

Isabella Alexander


The 1710 Statute of Anneis a convenient, if potentially misleading, starting point for copyright histories. Convenient, because it marks the beginning of copyright as a statutory right allowing authors some measure of control over products of the mind; misleading, because it does so only in retrospect. As Lionel Bently has observed, ‘Had anyone celebrated the passage of the Act in April 1710 by declaring “this is the world’s first copyright Act,” the chances are that few, if any, would have understood what that meant.’ At the time it was passed, the Statute of Anne was a narrowly conceived measure aimed at regulation of the book trade. It did not immediately establish a discrete area of law; indeed it had almost no immediate impact on the book trade’s commercial practices. It is only when viewed over a much longer duration that it can be seen to provide the backdrop to the development of many of the features of the area of law which we identify today as copyright law. The most frequently examined effect of the Statute has been the debates it engendered over common law copyright. However, as the writer, translator, inventor, editor and serial literary squabbler William Kenrick wrote after the decision in Donaldson v Becket: ‘It is to little purpose to determine whether literary property be temporary or perpetual, unless the nature of that property be also precisely determined.

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