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Modern copyright starts with the printing press and follows the invention of new technologies that facilitate the reproduction of content.
The contemporary notion of copyright starts with the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. This technology drastically reduced the time required to reproduce books and increased the ease at which copies could be made. With the practical barriers gone, copying could for the first time occur easily without the author or the publisher’s permission. This led to lobbying by publishers to curtail the impact of unauthorised copying.
In response, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the Statute of Anne, also known as the Copyright Act 1710. The legislation was passed on 5 April. It was the first legislative instrument to grant a monopoly right over content – only over books at that time.
While the scope of what was protected by the Statute of Anne, and the duration material is protected for, is much narrower than what is protected now, the Statute is the genesis of the modern copyright system.
This situation may not seem that significant, but it represents a scenario that repeats throughout copyright’s history. As new technologies that facilitate the easy and efficient reproduction of material are invented copyright law reform responds. Examples include:
- recording TV shows on VHS tapes, and later set top box digital recorders
- the photocopier and the ability to duplicate entire books
- the distribution of unauthorised piano rolls for playback using player pianos.
Phenomena such as peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, content snippets on search engines and social media and meme culture are just a few examples of how the internet has arguably become the biggest technological challenge to copyright owners so far, and has resulted in huge shifts in copyright law globally.