The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose
The authors of a fascinating new look at the patchwork chaos called copyright begin their book with this epigraph from an ancient English protest song against fencing, and thereby privatising, common land. David Bellos, a comparative literature professor at Princeton University and winner of the first International Booker Prize in 2005 for his translations of Ismail Kadare, and Alexandre Montagu, a lawyer specialising in intellectual property and new media law, have written a timely history of a ‘relatively simple idea – that authors have rights in the works they create’. Not just authors, but artists in many media, scientists, mathematicians and every one of us with our unique individual faces (which may now, in Guernsey, be registered as an intellectual property right as a ‘personality’, but only, appropriately enough, if you go there in person) should read this book. You will be pleasantly surprised that the authors are on your side.
The concept of copyright – that the creator of an original work has the right for a legally determined period of time to distribute, perform or display same – is a relatively new one, arising in Europe in the Renaissance in conjunction with the advent of the printing press. Plagiarism is far older. With its linguistic roots in the Latin for kidnapper, seducer or looter, plagiarism has vexed authors since Martial complained of the slimy Fidentinus copying his work. Notably, what annoyed Martial most was a loss of sales: Si mea vis dici, gratis tibi carmina mittam /si dici tua vis hoc eme, ne mea sint (‘If you’ll willingly call [the poems] mine, I’ll send you them for free / If you want them called yours, then buy this one, so they’re not mine’).