Unanticipated consequences: Copyright and Cultural Impact

Here are some great historical anecdotes about the unanticipated affects of copyright legislation as summarized by David & Rubin from William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period:

A simple but striking illustration of the potential cultural impact of an interaction between new communication technology and copyright law is offered by the history of the “accidental social construction” of an American film classic. The copyright on Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life was not renewed upon the expiration of its initial 28 year term, seemingly due to an oversight (the cost of the mandatory renewal registration being quite small at the time). That event subsequently has been regarded as a “tragic” accident, at least by some spokespeople for the intellectual property interests of the motion picture industry. But, only after its “fall” into the public domain did this particular film, largely ignored when it was first released and barely remembered – save by the most dedicated fans of Jimmy Stewart – commence its rapid ascent in the late 1970’s to a perennial place in popular television-programming for the Christmas holiday season.

A parallel, but somewhat more intricate passage in the cultural history of the English reading public may be remarked upon here, indicating the broader scope of the issues upon which this straightforwardly quantitative research project will touch. William St. Clair recently has made a persuasive case for the idea that enduring literary tastes may have not only a materialist basis, but one that is quite serendipitous, in being shaped by quite transient conjunctures of events affecting the economics of the book trade (St. Clair, 2004:ch. 20-23). In the course of developing this thesis, St. Clair (2004) documents the persisting and remarkably strong impact of the poets and novelists of English Romantic period upon the reading public of the Victorian age, and shows that the literary canon that prevailed in 1900 owed much to the particular circumstances that arose in the business of printing and publishing in Britain at a much earlier point in the 19th century. The application of stereotype printing technology in particular ushered in the profitable mass reprinting of inexpensive titles that could be kept “in print” for an unprecedented length of time – beginning with the cheap Bibles of the 1820’s. By 1837, when Victoria came to the throne, the works of the remarkable preceding generation of poets and novelists – Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Campbell, Southey, and Wordsworth – presented themselves for similar treatment. Many were dead, or had withdrawn from writing for publication, but their work had appeared during the transient interval of short copyright protection that was ushered in by the judicial implementation (in Beckett v. Donaldson, 1774) of the statutory copyright prescribed by the Act of Anne 8 (1709).

In this way the literature of the Romantic period serendipitously emerged from copyright to reach a greatly enlarged readership in innumerable cheap editions within only a generation of their having been written, whereas after 1841 in Britain, the span of copyright protection was lengthened to two, and then to three generations.

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