A Lazy, Ignorant Company of Stationers, To Say No Worse of Them

Locke and I: Part 1



“By this act England loses in general, scholars in particular are grounded, and nobody gets, but a lazy, ignorant Company of Stationers, to say no worse of them.”

John Locke (1693)

A few days ago my phone rang. John Locke was on the line. Yes, the John Locke. The philosopher. John and I call each other once in a while. We usually talk about our current work, we discuss some politics (he likes to talk about the Queen, I talk about the Middle East), and we almost always end up talking about copyright issues, culminating in him asking if he had ever told me how upset he was with how his views on copyright have been so misunderstood.

“The so called ‘Lockean’ maximalist view of copyright isn’t Lockean at all,” he’d say. “Did I ever mention that?”

“You did, John. More than once, actually” I’d tease him, to which he’d reply:

“Well, I must admit that I’m not getting any younger.”

And I’d say: “That’s fine, I’m always happy to hear that again. It’s reassuring.” And then, as part of the ritual, we’d laugh.

But this time Locke seemed agitated. His voice betrayed that he was more upset than usual.

“What’s up, John. Is everything all right?” I asked. “You seem a bit grumpy today. Are you upset about the lawsuit that Access Copyright filed against York University recently?”

“Am I upset? Oh, no,” he sneered. “I’m not upset, at all. I’m furious. How could I not be upset?”  he continued with mounting anger. “Access Copyright is just like its predecessor, the Stationers’ Company of London. It is as lazy and ignorant as its forefathers were, and like them, it is minding nothing but what makes for their monopoly” he growled.  “These Stationers won’t go away, will they? And it’s not only York University. They’re also trying to impose themselves on educators in the United States, and India, as if all of you were still their colonies. But at least so far I’ve had some comfort in you Canadians. I thought that you had already gotten your act together and would not let those mercenaries fool you anymore.”

“Don’t worry too much” I tried to calm him down. “The new Stationers are still here, but not for long. Let’s put things in perspective. Have you forgotten how long it took to defeat your Stationers back in the 1690s? Have you forgotten that whenever you thought they’d finally gone they would reappear? These Stationers are a stubborn bunch, but this time we will defeat them much more quickly,” I told him. “I promise”.

“But I thought you had defeated them already, hadn’t you? Didn’t they lose that Supreme Court case, weren’t they beaten in Parliament? Didn’t you send me this link where Geist said that their business model had been eviscerated? I thought that Geist, and you, and Knopf, and Trosow were much more convincing than Access Copyright’s apologists. But now they’re on the offensive. I am confused, Ariel. And worried, too. Please tell me what’s going on.”

“I’ll tell to you what’s going on, John. And then I’ll also write it down and post it on my blog”.

“Fair enough,” he replied. “And I’ll tweet it once it’s posted.”

“Of course, but before I start, why don’t I provide my readers some background on your involvement in those matters, and meanwhile maybe you can write another Treatise or two.”

“OK,” Locke softened. “That would be lovely. Please go and tell your readers about London’s swinging 1690s, tell them about my Memorandum, and how I fought the Stationers back then. I’ll call you back tomorrow.”

* * *

In 1695, the Licensing Act, the controversial statute that had the dual goal of instituting censorship and giving the London Company of Stationers exclusive control over publishing in Britain, was about to expire, and fierce debates raged concerning its renewal. John Locke had been one of the staunch critics of the Stationers’ Company, and a pivotal figure in the struggle to end its monopoly.

In a Memorandum against the renewal of the Act Locke detailed the harms of the Stationers’ monopoly and how it had hindered scholarship and learning. “By this act” he warned, “England loses in general, scholars in particular are ground, and nobody gets, but a lazy, ignorant Company of Stationers, to say no worse of them”.

Locke’s arguments played an important role in the Parliamentary debates, and eventually Parliament declined to renew Licensing Act. For the next fourteen years, the Stationers (except those holding Royal printing patents over specific books) had no legal basis for claiming any exclusive rights.  As Adrian Johns writes, “Suddenly the book trade found itself in a situation in which infringers or registered copies would face no legal sanction whatsoever. And at the same time it became legal to print and publish without being a member of the company at all. Internal regulations [of the Stationers’ Company] might have sufficed to keep booksellers and printers in line in the past, but now, in the speculative and entrepreneurial environment of 1690s London, it was never likely to prove sufficient.”

Soon the Stationers began lobbying for a revival of the old licensing regime, but the political atmosphere was no longer hospitable to their claims for monopoly, and Parliament had no appetite for reinstating censorship. Instead, the Stationers adopted new vocabulary, invoking (or inventing) the concept of natural property rights of authors, and demanding an act of Parliament to protect them. The Stationers’ campaign was only partly successful and out of that turmoil a new regime emerged. Copyright law was born. When Parliament enacted the Statute of Anne, the first copyright act, it restored some elements of the old regime but also made sure to include in it some measures designed to prevent the London Stationers’ from regaining and maintaining their monopoly. The Statute of Anne was fully successful in that, and it took additional rounds of litigation and legislation until their monopoly was broken down.

* * *

Continue to Part 2

Update: Locke just joined twitter, and as he promised, twitted this post:



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