On 23 April 1616, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date that other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo were either born or died. At the 1995 UNESCO General Conference this day was therefore selected to become World Book and Copyright Day, on which libraries, publishers and booksellers to encourage everyone, but especially young people, to discover a love of reading and an appreciation for the great writers who have helped shape human history.
Copyright protects both unpublished and published works for the lifetime of the author until long after they are dead (70-120 years depending on whether the date of death is known for certain). It protects against a work being plagiarised, copies being made (however bad the reproductions) without permission, and forbids anyone from creating derivative works based on the original. The question often raised is whether copyright supports or damages creativity. If we cannot draw on existing tunes, images and texts for so very long (songs written by people around the turn of the 20th century who died in 1940 are only now losing their copyright protected status), does the process of requesting permission and paying royalties stifle new innovations or prevent an endless recycling of old material?
There is a culture of instant gratification now, where everything is expected to be made available immediately and easily. Copyright law has changed little and is argued by some to be out of step with the brave new digital world. It still defends the code and data that computers read to run programs and play music, it still defends performance rights so that videos cannot be shown publicly without permission. The laws still hold but the digital information age has changed the business of making illegal copies from a nefarious attempt to set up a printing house to reproduce someone else’s work to sell for profit to clicking a button to share an article with all your friends via Mendeley. Breaching copyright has never been easier.
Everyone has to log in to use online resources to ensure no-one who has not been paid for can read the publishers carefully protected information products. Licences for digital content are negotiated between publishers and libraries so that fair use may be made of their materials: small and specified amounts of copying may be made for study purposes now because they have been paid for via the Copyright Licensing Agency (5% or one chapter of any book or e-book, or 1 article from any one issue of a journal or e-journal). Yet never before in human history have websites shared copyright protected material on such a scale, nor could you share an interesting article in breach of copyright with everyone you know even outside of the institution that paid for it.
The penalties for those the publishing industry accuses of copyright infringement are severe. An example was made of a 12 year old, targeted by the industry for illegally downloading music. In such cases, it is clearly harming the publishers’ profits. The question is whether it is useful at all, and if so whether it just lasts too long