Cambridge Technical Introductory Diploma in IT

(Unit 2 - LO4)

Understand the legal and regulatory framework governing the storage and use of global information.



A brief history of copyright.


A page from the CartharchIt is claimed that the Law of Copyright originated in Ireland. In the sixth Century, the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne was fought over the ownership of a Vulgate Psalter of St Columba known as "The Catharch". The Irish King at the time, King Diarmat Mac Cerbhaill when giving his judgment said, "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy." (Royal Irish Academy) More modern attempts were made to ascribe ownership to property that could be copied based on the ancient Greek ideas of "individual self" and in particular the concept of creativity (Plowman 1980) however, nothing significant was necessary until printing became sufficiently widespread for ownership of a book to become an issue. In 15th Century Venice, printers were granted licences to print books and letters as is the case of the German printer, Johannes de Spira, who was granted a five-year monopoly on the printing of the letters of Cicero and Pliny in 1469 by the Venetian Senate. ("Copyright Law and Practice" by William F. Patry) The Venetians regarded the "labour of printing" as important as the intellectual effort in creating the work.

Holbein's portraitof Henry VIII

The Tudors. The Caxton Press established in Westminster in 1470 had few rivals and this continued for over a century. However, the increasing number of presses and printed works and the growing printing trade and the public's appetite for new print-based media led to a number of issues resolved in part by the adoption of established licences based in part on the model of the Venetian system. Henry VII appointed William Facques as the first royal printer in 1504, but it was Henry VIII who began granting licences for specific books or works. Interestingly the first complaint of piracy was made by Wynken de Worde in 1533, who had obtained the King’s privilege for his second edition of Whittinton’s Syntaxis (Book of grammar). (Wikipedia) Henry resolved this through an act in parliament which not only worked for the benefit of the English printers but banned the importing of foreign books, thus diminishing (for a while) the effects of the works by Martin Luther and others writing on the Continent. The law was further tightened by Henry's decree that all new books be approved by the Privy Council, a state of affairs that existed in one form or another until 1694. Changes were made by both Mary and Elizabeth to halt religious reformation by the protestants in Mary's case and the catholics for Elizabeth. The freedom of choice to print works was restricted by creating the Worshipful Company of Stationers who were the only body who could print documents using moveable type. This meant that in effect the copyright was the property of the printer as a member of the Worshipful Company of Stationers rather than the author.

The 'Long Parliament' by Andrew garrick GowCromwell and the Puritans. The enforcement of the rights of the Worshipful Company of Stationers was undertaken by a "Star Chamber"which, over a period of time began to limit the books that could be published to reflect the views of the State and established Church which was extended to include not only books and pamphlets but ballads and portraits as well. The puritans in the form of the 1640 "Long Parliament" abolished the Star Chamber and significantly reduced the power of the Worshipful Company of Stationers which was described as an “utter shattering and breaking up of the old order of things and the commencement of an increasing liberty of printing which has ever since augmented." (Register of Worshipful Company of Stationers) As a consequence the ownership of copyright passed back to the author, "the Masters and Wardens of the Company of Stationers shall be required to take especial Order that the printers do neither print nor reprint anything without the name and consent of the Author" (Birrell 1899 -Birrell is of the opinion that this order was intended more to punish printers than to protect authors, for he could find no evidence of actions taken to enforce its provisions.) While many authors, Milton among them rejoiced at the freedom to publish, the Star Chamber re-appeared little changed after the Printing Act 1649 although the responsibilities given to the Stationers were transferred to the State until by 1655 almost all of the powers resided with the Council in State.

Portrait of Charles II by Peter lely, 1675The Restoration. With the restoration of Charles II the Stationers Company were again granted enforcement powers, although these led to a number of disputes. The 1662 Printing Act (based on the Star Chamber decree of 1637) again returned ownership to the printer through the register of the Stationers Company. This also conferred censorship approval as each work contained a statement to the effect that the work was not contrary to the Christian faith, state or government. Specific enforcement powers were granted to the "Surveyor of the Press" Sir Roger L’Estrange (born in Hunstanton) a staunch and fervent Royalist who survived the civil war despite being sentenced to death as a spy. Sir Roger began his own press and indeed published many pamphlets and a newspaper for 6 years. (Pamphlets were regarded then, as social media is now.) There may have been a conflict of interest but the Charter was renewed on a quite regular basis up until 1694.

The Age of EnlightenmentThe Age of Enlightenment. With the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment in the early 1700s and the questioning of scientific fact and philosophical reason the position of authors and the ownership of their own copyright was seen as being at odds with the censorship and restrictive monopoly of the Licensing Acts and the Stationers' rights. Parliament refused to extend these rights in 1694 despite five consecutive years of petitioning from the Stationers. The last attempt was in 1707 when the draft bill died in committee. Statute of Anne, London (1710). The Stationers had not given up and presented a bill through Parliament which was amended not only in the House, but in the Lords and in a number of committees. The new bill was drawn up in 1710 and passed as “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned” to be known as the Statute of Anne. For the first time and Act of Parliament protected the rights of authors, It did so by granting them the exclusive right to reproduce their intangible creations, rather than as in the past by granting a printer or bookseller the right to “copies” of the physical book, whether Pliny or Milton.("Copyright Law and Practice" by William F. Patry). Existing works were granted 21 years protection and new works 14 years. If the author was still living at the termination of the first period of 14 years then a second term was granted. It should be noted that the work needed to be registered with the Stationers Company but not now by a member and that this protection applied only to "books".

The Battle of the BooksellersThe battle of the Booksellers. The Statute of Anne seems to be plain and to grant the intellectual rights to the author and not the printer. It must be bourne in mind that printing ever 240 years after Caxton was still a skilled and labour intensive process. Nevertheless there were a number of law suits that persisted for almost 50 years as the printers sought to re-establish their rights after the expiration of the original term. The lower courts seemed to support them in this with a number of injunctions after 1738 in what became known as "The Battle of the Booksellers" . However, as before the government was more concerned with the influx of foreign texts, in particular Irish reprints that a new law was passed in 1739 forbidding the importing of books in the English language from abroad unless authorised. Finally in 1774 in Donaldson v. Becket the House of Lords ruled in favour of the author and this finally confirmed the legal point that the rights in the text were owned by the author. not the publisher.

The Copyright Act 1842The Copyright Acts (1842, 1911 and 1956). In slightly more recent times the copyright can now pass to the estate of the author as the restricted period is either the lifetime of the author plus seven years or forty two years, whichever is the longer (1842) and then the lifetime of the author plus fifty years for any publication after 1912. This was later extended by the 1988 Act to 70 years. The period of restriction was retained in the 1956 Act, however prior to 1956 the nationality of the publication was essential as only work spublished in the UK were subject to the copyright restrictions. If the work was simultaneously (which apparently is within a month) published abroad then the copyright was upheld.

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This is the latest incvarnation of the Law of Copyright. In fact it is has been amanded by numerous orders in Council and EU directives. Where the 1988 act differed from previous Acts was in the inlcusion of specific moral rights that had previously been enforced in civil courts; actions for passing off, defamation and falsehood. An author's moral rights are: the right to be identified as the author; the right to object to derogatory treatment; the right to object to false attribution; and the right to privacy of certain photographs and films


  • Birrell, A. (1899) The Law and History of Copyright
  • Ploman, Edward W. (1980) Copyright: Intellectual Property in the Information Age (London)