OpenFiction [Blog]

The Stationers’ monopoly

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 23, 2006

Modern copyright is often traced back to the formation of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, or the Stationers’ Guild, in England in 1557. This is a moment variously described as the birth of the modern notion of authorship, as Corynne McSherry suggests in Who Owns Academic Work?, and as an early example of how the mass media can be used to control political discourse, as Yochai Benkler explains in The Wealth of Networks.

It’s sometimes difficult to understand the artifice that has been built up around our current notions of both authorship and intellectual property, so completely have they been naturalized over time, but the granting of the Stationer’s monopoly brings us back to a moment when these concepts were very much in flux. Here’s Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite (Information Feudalism) on the basics:

Copyright begins life in England in the form of printing privileges granted by Queen Mary in 1557 to a craft guild known as the Stationers. Like all craft guilds, the Stationers had a serious interest in monopoly profits and a commensurate fear of competition. In particular, the London-based guild did not want competition from regional printers or from across the border in Scotland. Queen Mary, like all monarchs, feared ideas that questioned her legitimacy… Mary…struck a deal with the Stationers: in exchange for a charter granting them monopoly over printing, the Stationers would ensure that no “seditious and heretical books, rhymes and treatises” would see the light of day.

The way in which this monopoly was constructed helped create the modern notion of an author. McSherry now:

Discourse was not originally seen as a thing, an object of property, but as an action. Writings were seen as political performances, statements of loyalty, faith, or sedition, rather than objects of legal ownership, and the Stationers’ monopoly facilitated the management of these statements. Printers were legally obliged to gain an author’s consent to any publication, and to identify the author on the title page, so that any unlawful “actions” might be punished. Printers who failed to do so would be considered the authors themselves, and therefore responsible for any libelous or seditious content… Thus texts began to have authors, in the modern sense of individual human creators, “when authors became subject to punishment” (Foucault, 1977). In this sense, copyright was born at the intersection between censorship and the regulation of piracy…

One of the ways that–to borrow Benkler’s term–the networked information economy (or Web 2.0) appears to destabilize the notion of ownership is by returning the notion of writing to the premodern, pre-copyright conception of writing as an act. Note how well McSherry’s description also applies to blog postings: “political performances, statements of faith, loyalty, or sedition.” Few bloggers that I am aware of are interested in asserting copyright over their postings (and I suspect CC-licensed blogs like this one are in fact a large part of the explosion in openly licensed content on the web). While some blogs do exist as simple diary, many blog postings are a participation in dialogue, active, time-based and community-focused. Acts rather than objects, given importance only in their relation to other elements of the larger discourse. The Stationers’ monopoly and the cultural shifts required to accomplish it point back to an understanding of writing with new relevance.

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