Macaulay’s 1841 speech to the House of Commons on copyright law is often cited and not much read. In fact, the phrase “cite unseen” gains a new meaning. That is a shame, because it is masterful. (And funny.) One fascinating moment? When Macaulay warns that copyright maximalism will lead to a future of rampant illegality, as all happily violate a law that is presumed to have lost all moral legitimacy.
At present the holder of copyright has the public feeling on his side. Those who invade copyright are regarded as knaves who take the bread out of the mouths of deserving men. Everybody is well pleased to see them restrained by the law, and compelled to refund their ill-gotten gains. No tradesman of good repute will have anything to do with such disgraceful transactions. Pass this law: and that feeling is at an end. Men very different from the present race of piratical booksellers will soon infringe this intolerable monopoly. Great masses of capital will be constantly employed in the violation of the law. Every art will be employed to evade legal pursuit; and the whole nation will be in the plot… Remember too that, when once it ceases to be considered as wrong and discreditable to invade literary property, no person can say where the invasion will stop. The public seldom makes nice distinctions. The wholesome copyright which now exists will share in the disgrace and danger of the new copyright which you are about to create.
The legal change he thought would do that? Extending copyright to the absurd length of life plus 50 years. (It is now life plus 70). Ah, Thomas, if only you could have been there for the Sonny Bono Term Extension debates.
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