From the Library of Congress’ twitter feed, I learn that today is World IP Day. In honor of World IP Day, I’d like to share my favorite essay on copyright, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”1

I know, I know, you’re likely as surprised as I am to learn that there is a World IP Day. It was, according to Wikipedia, founded in 2000 by the World Intellectual Property Organization in order to “raise awareness of how patents, copyright, trademarks and designs impact on daily life” and “to celebrate creativity, and the contribution made by creators and innovators to the development of societies across the globe.”

The concepts of copyright and intellectual property are quite modern. In fact, the first copyright law granting creators financial rights to their work was the Statute of Anne, passed in Britain in 1710. Britain had also passed the earlier Licensing of the Press Act 1662. It was passed to regulate the printing industry, essentially to allow the British government to censor that which it didn’t want published. It’s important to realize that copyright came about because of the printing press. The printing press enabled books and other texts to be commodified, and with their commodification came the sense of ownership of the content—the intellectual property—inside a book. Fights over digital rights management protections which keep legal owners from making copies for their own personal private use, heavy-handed lawsuits against individuals, the question of whether or not to place online content behind paywalls, and the inability of restaurant employees from singing “Happy Birthday” to customers are all examples of how the print-based model of copyright and fair use isn’t scaling well in the digital age.2

In the United States, the first copyright law, passed in 1790, granted a creator a copyright of 14 years plus an additional 14 years if they exercised their right of renewal. Its purpose, as the law states, was to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” US Copyright law, as originally envisioned, sought to strike a balance between a creator’s right to earn money from their creation and the public’s right to reuse and build upon the intellectual and creative work of others. The length of copyright in the US has been continually extended so that with the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, individual copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years and corporate copyright lasts for 120 years. (See chart below to see how the length of US copyright has increased.) While the right of creators is firmly enshrined in current copyright law, the right of the public to reuse and build upon the intellectual and creative work of others has largely disappeared.

Chart representing the expansion of US copyright law

Expansion of U.S. copyright law (Assuming authors create their works by age 35 and live for seventy years.) From Wikimedia Commons.

The point of all this is that on World IP Day, the day the World Intellectual Property Organization wants us to consider “how patents, copyright, trademarks and designs impact on daily life” and “to celebrate creativity, and the contribution made by creators and innovators to the development of societies across the globe,” we should consider the original purpose of copyright laws and concept of intellectual property, we should consider how the concepts of copyright and intellectual property as products of the printing press are modern creations which post-date Shakespeare,3  and we should consider how vastly the concepts of copyright and intellectual property have changed during their few hundred year history.

I can think of no better way to celebrate World IP Day than to return to Lethem’s essay and to share it with others. It’s an excellent meditation on the tension between the right of the creator to benefit from their creation versus the right and the importance of the public to use those works to further “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” I find the end of Lethem’s essay, the passage from which I get the title for this post, beautiful in both its sentiment and its expression, so let me end this post with that full last paragraph. If nothing else, it sums up for me the both spirit in which we should celebrate the day and the spirit in which we should ruminate upon it:

As a novelist, I’m a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away. For the moment I’m grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

  1. The title of this blog post comes from the last paragraph of Lethem’s essay. []
  2. For those looking for a good introduction to this issue copyright and intellectual property in the digital age beyond what’s offered in Lethem’s essay, see Harvard law professor (formerly at Stanford) Lawrence Lessig’s books The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, and Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. []
  3. All of Shakespeare’s plays, except for The Tempest, are reworks of histories, other plays (some contemporary), or other works of literature. And The Tempest itself has Calaban recite a passage right out of Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals.” []