Who Owns This Sentence? A History of Copyrights and Wrongs by David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu


Review by Walter Cummins

You probably haven’t realized it, but at this very moment you’re reading intellectual property (IP). It’s a new concept to me too. I’ve been writing for decades and all along was under the illusion that I was turning out reviews, stories, and essays, all under the loose umbrella of creative writing, never considering property and ownership. But Bellos and Montagu have enlightened me. IP is a multi-billion dollar force in the world economy. Issues of control and profit dominate the occupations of thousands, many with law degrees. They dwarf the number of actual creators. My own output is a mere spit in the ocean of the cumulative creations, and I certainly haven’t made a dent in those billions.

Bellos and Montagu aren’t happy about this situation, not necessarily my—perhaps deserved—personal lack of reward, but about the ways copyright laws treat the creators and about who actually benefits from IP ownership. Note the final word of the punning subtitle—“Wrongs.” While the authors—Bellos an academic and Montagu a lawyer—are certainly well-informed about the developments and negotiations that have produced the shifts in copyright law over recent centuries, they aren’t just reporting. They are criticizing the inadequacies of those laws in failing to protect the real creators and the public and in catering to the already powerful:

This book explains where the idea [the concept of copyright] was first sown, how it sprouted, developed and ramified over centuries, and then, in a short space of time, was transformed into the biggest money machine the world has seen.

Reacting to Bruce Springsteen selling his creative output to Sony for $550 million, with Sony’s expectations of, in the years ahead, realizing billions in profits from that intellectual property, Bellos and Montagu consider this purchase as symptomatic: “Most copyrights of commercial value now belong not to artists, but to corporations,” adding that “The empire of I.P. is the feudal domain of our day.”

The system all began with the invention of printing and the realization by those governing countries that for their protection the power of the printed word had to be controlled.

Even from the first attempts to codify protections, those favored were the marketers rather than the creators, the real rewards going to those who monetized the creations. Those initial marketers were the printers of books, such as the licensed stationers’ companies of Shakespeare’s time in London and their counterparts in Paris: “Printing and publishing became a cartel of hereditary printing families.”

Authors were identified not for fair compensation but for disclosure of those to blame if the work was accused of sedition, blasphemy, or other content that upset those in charge. In many ways, that’s still the case. The contracts authors sign today usually give them responsibility for assuring the publisher can’t be sued for libel or violation of someone else’s copyright.

What was in effect a censorship goal coincided with the pecuniary goals of those the rulers allowed to publish and sell the printed words. Once books existed and were sold, the fact that money was involved demanded guidelines for the distribution of the incoming pounds, francs, lira, rubles, etc. Versions of copyright rules were first formulated within the borders of specific countries, and because that approach left many loopholes allowing what was in effect cross-border theft of creations, an eventual international set of rules emerged—the 1886 Berne Convention in Switzerland.

One argument used to justify copyright was the financial incentive for authors to produce creative works that enlighten the public. Bellos and Montagu consider that a ruse because most serious authors turn out work because they have a compulsion to write and would do it for free, which is true of the thousands satisfied with the goal of publication without compensation. Reacting to Samuel Johnson’s, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Bellos and Montagu report that “Worldwide, more people register more works for I.S.B.N.s (the international standard book numbers that permit global identification of authors and work) than ever before.” Could there be so many blockheads, they wonder?

When reproduced copies are involved, those who—in the case of printed versions—must invest in printing presses, ink, paper, marketing, distribution, royalties, and more expect to earn to profit from their expenditures. To do that they seek a guarantee of ownership of the product they sell. With the exception of the handful of big earners, authors play minor roles in the economies of publishing. Even changes in law ostensibly made to extend that length of time an author and his or her descendants retain copyright actually serve the owners and sellers of works even more. Consider the U.S. Congress’s last minute extension of the Mickey Mouse copyright for the Disney Corporation when Mickey’s protection was about to run out and deprive Disney of future millions.

Mickey and his kind are certainly not made of words like books. Over the many years as the range of created works expanded to include the visual and the sonic and other forms that lead to a scramble for legal possession and profit, resulting in an amalgamation of copyright and trademark. We are each one of us paying the price of the corporate ownership of intellectual property. A 2018 calculation that Bellos and Montagu cites estimated $6,000 per person per year: “Copyright is the elephant in the room when it comes to understanding the origins of the wealth gap in modern societies. It is a major engine of inequality in the twenty-first century.”

The Disney case exemplifies the growth of the business role of copyright when no individual creator exists or the creator may be a group of people who collaborated for hire. So much of recent mass media output now results from teams of specialists and even non-human sources such as artificial intelligence. Consider this response from serendipity.ai to my query about the monetary value of AI in the United States: 

The value of intellectual property (IP) in the U.S. is significant, contributing to the economy and job creation. According to a report by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), IP-intensive industries contribute around $5 trillion and 40 million jobs to the U.S. economy. The growth in the intangible sector, strongly correlated with the number of patent and trademark filings, plays a paramount role in the continuously expanding U.S. economy. Intellectual property rights allow businesses to benefit from their innovative ideas and creations, playing a critical role in economies worldwide. Nearly 90% of growth in the United States can be attributed to intangible assets, with much of that number derived from the value of intellectual property involved. The entire U.S. economy relies on some form of IP, as virtually every industry either produces or uses it. The value of United States exports of intellectual property use from November 2019 to November 2023 was in the billions of U.S. dollars. The importance of intellectual property is also evident at a firm level, where it exceeds 65% for Fortune 500 companies and exceeds 90% for certain technology-based companies. Overall, intellectual property is a driver for innovation and growth and is extremely important to the U.S. economy.

I merely asked the question and didn’t in any way write the above paragraph. Who owns it? My suspicion is that with AI about to produce endless assemblages of words, images, and sounds, someone, most likely a corporation, will collude to own them. Given past experience, I expect that a future iteration of copyright laws will grant that goal. Bellos and Montagu probably would wager that there’s a good chance the resulting rights will be wrong.