The Ius Imaginum of Ancient Rome: Was it the first Copyright Law?

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From Hugh Stephens Blog:

As any student of copyright knows, we can trace copyright law back to the Statute of Anne in 1709, (entered into force on April 10, 1710 as the Copyright Act of 1710), when the British Parliament passed the first legislation to protect the rights of British book publishers. The initial period of protection was 14 years. According to “commonly accepted wisdom” (i.e. Wikipedia), this was the first statute to provide for copyright regulated by the government and the courts, rather than by private parties. From there, copyright law evolved into the national and international regime that we know today, including its inclusion in the US constitution as Article 1.Section 8. Clause 8., giving to Congress the authority “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.” Is the Statute of Anne the first legislation to protect copyright as the expression and reproduction of ideas and images? I always thought so. After all, that was what Wikipedia said so it must be true!

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In fact, if one digs a little deeper, one discovers a treasure trove of studies relating to earlier copyright, predating the Statute of Anne by at least a couple of centuries. The Republic of Venice, a centre for book publishing in the 15th and 16th centuries was particularly active in granting a “privilegio” to certain publishers to print a particular text, to prevent other from importing the text and to certain bookshops to sell a certain text. But the privilegio was not just limited to printers and publishers although that was the most common form of “copyright”.

. . . .

When I was in Italy this past summer looking at busts and statues of Roman notables, I came across this explanation of the ius imaginum in the Palazzo Massimo, part of the National Museum of Rome.

“Portraits, formerly the preserve of aristocratic families, were an exclusive right to an image and governed by a group of regulations known as the “ius imaginum”; they quickly spread as an art form particularly in the age of Sulla (1stC. BC.), following a tradition of portraiture which is attested to by the custom of exhibiting wax masks of ancestors, like a genealogical tree, in the entrances of Roman homes”.

The English translation appears a bit stilted but it seems that there was a Roman law granting the exclusive right to create and display images (of ancestors) to certain identified individuals, namely those holding the office of higher magistrate known as aedile, or magistratus cerules. Only those holding this position were granted the exclusive right to produce and display family portraits.

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It is worth going back to basic principles of copyright for a moment. Exclusivity has always conferred a certain cachet, and often economic benefit, on objects or works. A mass produced work of art is not as valuable as a numbered print, not to speak of an original. The rights-holder, today normally the creator of the work, whether a work of art, a work of literature, a musical composition or other form of creation, should have the right to determine the form and degree of exposure of that work, and thus its economic value. The creator needs these basic rights in order to exploit the full potential of the work as he or she sees fit, whether by licensing the rights for commercial use under specified circumstances, or by licensing it for use by all without remuneration, with various variations in between. That is a creator’s right, seen as a fundamental right in some jurisdictions, and as an economic right in others. In contemporary law that right is time-limited, and is subject to various limitations to allow others certain uses of the material without permission or compensation (the source of much debate) under specified circumstances. These exceptions to absolute exclusivity also allow creators themselves to build on the work of those who have preceded them.

That is how things have evolved, but it all goes back to the fundamental principle of possessing rights, both moral and economic, in intellectual property.

Link to the rest at Hugh Stephens Blog

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