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Legislation follows at an appropriate distance from technological developments

What does a dissertation on a forgotten Victorian novelist have in common with a rushrelease from multinational Sony?

A lot, it now turns out. Media giant Sony, which has owned record company Columbia for decades, released a quadruple CD of Bob Dylan's recordings from 1962 and 1963 just before 1 January 2013. Big news you would think, but both the record company and Bob Dylan's own website kept the news quiet. There were some mutterings about not wanting to get in the way of Dylan's thirty-fifth record The Tempest, but soon the reason for the sneaky release became clear.

Musiccopyrights are set in Europe at 50 years. After that, anyone can do whatever they want with it. However, there is a clause: if you release the material yourself before the expiry date, the rights are extended by 20 years. This is exactly why Sony released four CDs of old Dylan recordings in an edition of a hundred copies. To secure the rights.

And there appears to be a catch, because enquiries as to why this particular selection was made reveal that the record company might want to re-release some of the songs that have now been released in secret. To earn big bucks from it, of course. And it obviously did not work: almost simultaneously, a double CD entitled Folk Singer-Humdinger on the market from the obscure Smiths&Co with, indeed, work from the '62-'63s.

But where do these copyrights and the interests of music publishers actually come from? It can be read in The rise of the professional author: the life and work of sir Walter Besant, on which Detlef Wagenaar recently obtained his PhD and which deserves a trade edition.

Walter Besant? Who?

Exactly, but in his own time Besant was a veritable bestselling author. Wagenaar's thesis, however, is particularly interesting because of Besant's other claim to fame: as founder and foreman of the Society of Authors, the first advocacy organisation for writers.

Why was it needed? A history lesson:

"The first copyright law was introduced in 1709 in England: the Copyright Statute, better known as the Act of Anne. It provided that the copyright of a written work was, for at least 14 years, owned by the author - and then went into the public domain."

So just like Dylan's songs now. So nothing has changed?

"This law is revolutionary because, even before the term was invented, it defines intellectual property: or in other words, the content of a book, an intangible mental product, is for the first time considered property. Until then, the medieval Common Law, which did not distinguish between the contents of the book and the material it was written on, applied. However, with the introduction of the printing press, manuscripts could be reproduced without restriction and thus there was the possibility of virtually uncontrolled dissemination of thought."

That only 233 years after the introduction of this new technological development comes minimal appropriate legislation is striking, but, although less time passes now, that pattern still exists. And just as record companies benefited mainly themselves centuries later, the same thing happened centuries ago.

"Surely, these copyright laws mainly gave power to booksellers and printers - usually one and the same person. A writer had no bargaining power, was dependent on the book producer, and although readership grew steadily and a new genre emerged, the novel, the position of writers changed little in England."

Enter Walter Besant. He did manage to establish an interest group for writers in 1884, which still exists today.

"Besant was aware of the fact that the authors who could achieve the most through their popularity and thus influence needed the least help and thus advocated solidarity, but above all pointed out some common goals: reform of archaic national copyright laws and, even then very important in an ever shrinking world, bringing about international copyright to finally counter predatory printing in America."

Besant was ahead of her time. Through education, readership grew and again technological developments played a crucial role: printing capacity skyrocketed, as did distribution speed while printing costs fell. In short: the book market exploded and financial interests grew along with it.

"Besant's weapon was raising awareness among budding writers that their 'literary property' was actually their property, which they should never sell and from which one should get the highest possible return. 'Literature is a business. Be a businessman yourself.'"

And thus Besant played a part in professionalising the Sebes & Van Gelderen of his time. Besant thought it was a sign of professionalism to hire someone like that.

The parallels with music are obvious, with the rise of managers and record companies who, after a long time of exploitation, bad deals and songwriters not owning the rights to their songs, are defending the ever-increasing interests of musicians.

"When technology here too enabled the easy reproduction and especially via the internet of audio and visual material, a discussion on piracy arose that had direct parallels with the piracy debate in the nineteenth century."

Although Besant's novels have rightly been forgotten, Wagenaar convincingly shows that law, by definition, follows technological developments at an appropriate distance. And that the associated debates about the artistic versus the commercial value of art still follow the same pattern.

Henri Drost

Henri Drost (1970) studied Dutch and American Studies in Utrecht. Sold CDs and books for years, then became a communications consultant. Writes for among others GPD magazines, Metro, LOS!, De Roskam, 8weekly, Mania, hetiskoers and Cultureel Persbureau/De Dodo about everything, but if possible about music (theatre) and sports. Other specialisms: figures, the United States and healthcare. Listens to Waits and Webern, Wagner and Dylan and pretty much everything in between.View Author posts

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