Who knew that there is an ethic of copyrighting? It is about the same age as the first printing machine. What little most writers know about Gutenberg comes from descriptions of his press in the mid-16th century. Our scant awareness comes from 16th century court documents. In these records, Guttenberg’s press is described as “a faster writing machine.” Apparently, he adapted the technology of a wine press when he was designing his printing press. The technology of applying pressure with a screw and lever combination already existed, so it makes sense that he would borrow the idea for his own invention.[1]

                The ethics of copywriting printed, or handwritten work follows the printing of what we write to the courts in which we claim copy right. It began in 18th century book battles. Copyright was a royal prerogative granted to the main publishing guild in England. The Crown granted a license to control copy largely because it desired to control the spread of potentially threatening religious or political ideas.[2] That led to the world’s first copyright statute, the 1709 Statute of Anne—it created an unlimited monopoly over copy, including at times, the right to search buildings and seize copy.

Modern copyright laws recognize, as a matter of moral principle, a limit to monopoly. The act first gave legal expression to the idea that the social value of disseminating information and culture was great enough to justify limiting the property interests of publishers. The act also prepared the way for an author’s copyright. And that, for today’s writers is the underpinning ethical norm; social value.[3]

 Then, and now, there is an inherent tension between a priori justification and historical contingency. The ethical values which underlie copyright law emerge alongside the development of economic markets for intellectual labor, the decline of the patronage system, a change in the correlation between literacy and membership in an upper class or clerical class, and the development of a new explanation of intellectual production which emphasized “invention” and “original genius.” Accordingly, there is a good deal of documentation differentiating the rise of the modern understanding of copyright and the decline of older more traditional ways of thinking about the credit one deserves for intellectual achievement and the social reward system is well documented.[4]

Some scholarly writers argue, “Whether it is morally permissible to photocopy a text, they cannot help but be struck by how much of their everyday activity involves copying in the general sense of the word. Even without considering copying technology (which really includes everything from the pencil to the text scanner), mental activity itself seems to be a form of copying. Surely no one believes that when I jot down a few notes to aid my memory, I am violating any ethical norm. Even if I make several longhand copies of a lengthy passage and distribute them to my friends, it is hard to identify, at first glance, a moral harm. The introduction of copy technology, it might be alleged, doesn’t introduce any new logical features. After all, at one level of use, the copying machine merely replaces the laborious work of copying text longhand. At another level, it merely obviates the need to lug large bound journals back to one’s study. Apart from the speed and efficiency of the copying, there seems to be little difference between: (a) reciting from memory a long poem for several friends on different occasions; (b) sending them longhand copies; and (c) sending them photocopies. If we consider enough cases, we may come to the same conclusion which Bringsjord does that it is morally permissible to copy anything that is in public circulation as long as you don’t plan to sell the copy. Because his argument, like the one above, depends upon a gradation of similar cases, I will call such arguments gradation arguments. While gradation arguments show us some interesting features of the activity of copying, I think they are fundamentally inadequate as a means of deciding any ethical issues concerning copyright.”[5]

Article IV of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics states that library workers “respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders. Copyright is the aspect of intellectual property law that has the most impact on libraries. Copyright, as established by the U.S. Constitution and the Copyright Act, is a system of rights granted by law combined with limitations on those rights. Copyright law was established to encourage authors, artists, and others to create and share their works by granting them specific exclusive rights in their works. Those rights are limited by certain exceptions like fair use or the term of copyright. These limitations are necessary to ensure a well-functioning copyright law that protects creators’ rights while also preserving freedom of information and freedom of expression.”[6]

Obviously, ethical codes and statutory interpretations share a common ethical goal. Copyright benefits the public through the creation and dissemination of information and creative works. In pursuit of this goal, copyright law should balance the public’s need to access and use informative and creative works with the economic interests of right’s holders.

[1] https://www.printmuseum.org/gutenberg-press

[2] http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/alfino/dossier/Papers/COPYRIGH.htm

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martha Woodmansee, “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the Author,” Eighteenth Century Studies 17 (1984) 425-448.

[5] http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/alfino/dossier/Papers/COPYRIGH.htm

[6] https://www.ala.org/tools/ethics/copyright

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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