The Chronicles of Broadviewlandia
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away there was a country named Broadviewlandia. The name Broadviewlandia had been adopted to symbolize that country’s hopes for a new bright future, as Broadviewlandia was slowly emerging from several centuries of feudal social order. Like in many ex-feudal societies, very few books were written in Broadviewlandia and even fewer were published, and the ones that existed were limited, expansive, and beyond the reach of almost all Broadviewlanders.
The enlightened government of Broadviewlandia was concerned about this situation and had been studying various proposals on how to encourage authors to write more books and publishers to publish them. Eventually, the Parliament of Broadviewlandia was persuaded to adopt the proposal of Narrowview Press, the dominant local publisher, to grant authors an exclusive right called “supercopyright”.
What is “supercopyright”? Basically, it’s similar to what you may know as “copyright” except that it lasts forever, there is no such thing as fair dealing or fair use, and every use of a copyrighted work must be authorized by the owner and paid for. And if you are curious why Narroview would propose granting supercopyright to authors and not to publishers? Well, that was the clever trick that Narrowview’s top-notch lobbyists suggested. They estimated that talking about rewarding authors would be more politically appealing than talking about rewarding publishers, and the rightly predicted that since most authors would rather not publish their books on their own, it wouldn’t be difficult for Narrowview to get authors assign it their supercopyrights when they hand over their manuscripts.
So this is how supercopyright came to be in Broadviewlandia.
But Broadviewlandia–as many countries that were only beginning to structure their post-feudal institutions–did not have any publicly funded or publicly supported education. Back then, education was a luxury that only the few super-rich Broadviewlanders could afford.
Accordingly, Narrowview Press focused on selling books to the super-rich and was actually doing quite well. But other publishers, many of whom were lured to enter the business of publishing after the passage of the Supercopyright Act, soon learned that they were facing a very small market of readers to sell books to, and an even smaller pool of authors from whom they could obtain manuscripts. They also realized that neither demand for their output nor supply of inputs is likely to grow very quickly.
Imagine that you are one of those new publishers. Not only do you realize that your market is small and limited, you also learn that because authors are so few and precious you can’t sign them up unless you agree to pay them significant royalties, and you recall how whenever you were willing to pay an author such higher royalties, Narrowview has outbid you in order to keep competition at bay.
You begin wondering whether you should stay in the business of publishing at all. Yes, you’ve been able to acquire some supercopyrights, but you have a very limited opportunity to profit from them. And during many sleepless nights, in the long hours when your finances haunt you and balance sheets torment you, you doubt whether bidding on those supercopyrights ever made sense. “How stupid could I be,” you tell yourself. “After all, those supercopyrights that I paid a fortune for don’t generate demand for books from readers, and nor do they create supply of manuscripts from authors, and without a large and educated population there will always be very few readers and even fewer authors, so what are my supercopyrights worth anyway?
Eventually, after many such sleepless nights, it dawns upon you that if education were more accessible—even widely accessible—not only your sales could grow (because there will be much greater demand for books, including a whole new segment of educational books), there would also have a greater supply of authors. More demand for your outputs and greater supply of inputs—who could ask for more? The only problem, of course, is that education is a costly business, and while it might be worthwhile to invest in it, it wouldn’t make sense for you to invest in educating the population because while you may invest, many others, including your competitors, could reap the benefit.
If you were one of those new publishers in Broadviewlandia, you and your fellow publishers would then lobby the government and persuade it to subsidize education and make it as accessible as possible, perhaps even mandatory. You would make a very compelling argument that while subsidizing public education might benefit publishers, it would also benefit society at large. It would be a win-win for all, you would argue.
And if your government were a sensible one, it might actually be happy to subsidize education, but it would also be concerned that the existing suprecopyright regime might not only make education more costly and less effective, it could also disproportionately channel most of the benefits to you and your fellow publishers, and leave too little to the rest of Broadviewlandian society. So the government insists, based the recommendations in the Report of the Binnie-Mclachlin Committee, that if it were to subsidize education, it would also narrow the scope of your supercopyrights, and replace them with more limited, normal, copyrights. The government insists, in the words of that Report, on “giving due weight to their limited nature,” because the purpose of the proposed copyright would be “to balance the public interest in promoting the encouragement and dissemination of works of the arts and intellect and obtaining a just reward for the creator.”
And if you were a sensible publisher, you might be disappointed initially, but you would quickly realize that such “due weight to your copyright’s limited nature”—which helps teachers to teach, students to study, researchers to investigate, authors to write, publishers to publish, and libraries to support those activities, would ultimately help you more than it could possibly hurt you. You would acknowledge that while this is certainly a win-win for all Broadviewlanders, but it is still a super-win for you, and you would enthusiastically support the abolition of supercopyright and the enactment of the new Broadviewlandia Copyright Act.
And this is how supercopyright was abolished in Broadviewlandia, and how copyright came to be.
But Earth is not Broadviewlandia. Earthly publishers don’t always have a broad view. Indeed, some of the dominant among them were founded by descendants of the owners of Narrowview Press who left Broadviewlandia after Broadviewlanders have had enough of their tactics. So if you were one of those, here on Earth, you might support the enactment of the Copyright Act, but immediately begin complaining how unfair it is that your copyright is not super-strong, and how appalling it is that fair dealing allows users, under some circumstances, to use your works without permission or payment. You would argue that such unpaid use of your property is theft, or expropriation, or at least a subsidy that you are forced to pay, and similar kind of arguments.
Earthly publishers have been in this opportunistic game since the enactment of the Statute of Anne more than 300 years ago. Nothing much has changed, except that each generation’s memory is short. And this is why in every generation and year after year we must read, retell, and teach the Chronicles of Broadviewlandia.