In this insightful piece, Tim Parks looks at where copyright comes from and how to think about it.
“They have taken away my right to own a slave,” wrote Max Stirner, the opening words of the chapter on human rights in his great book, The Ego and its Own (1844). One paradoxical sentence to remind us that what we call rights are no more than what the law concedes to one party or another in any given conflict of interest. There are no rights in nature, only in a society with a legal system and a police force. Rights can be different in different countries, they may be notional or enforced.
Copyright then is part of a mass of legislation that governs the relationship between individual and collective, for the most part defending the former against the latter. You will only have copyright in a society that places a very high value on the individual, the individual intellect, the products of individual intellect. In fact, the introduction of a law of copyright is one of the signs of a passage from a hierarchical and holistic vision of society, to one based on the hopes and aspirations of the individual. Not surprisingly, the first legal moves toward creating the concept of copyright come in late seventeenth-century Britain.