"Donaldson v Becket" (1774) is a landmark legal case in the history of copyright law. This case significantly contributed to the shaping of modern copyright concepts. Here's a detailed summary:
- Date: 1774
- Parties: Alexander Donaldson and others (Plaintiffs) against Thomas Becket and others (Defendants)
- Context: The case arose in the context of the early development of copyright law in England.
- Incident: The dispute centered around the copyright of James Thomson's poems, particularly "The Seasons".
- Action: Donaldson, a Scottish publisher, began publishing Thomson's works without permission from the English publishers, including Becket, who claimed to have exclusive rights.
- Legal Question: The key issue was whether copyright in published works was perpetual or subject to statutory limits.
- Lower Courts: Becket successfully obtained an injunction against Donaldson to stop the unlicensed publication.
- Appeal to House of Lords: Donaldson appealed to the House of Lords, which sought the opinion of judges from the King’s Bench, Common Pleas, and Exchequer of Pleas.
- Decision: The House of Lords, after consulting with the judges, concluded that copyright was not perpetual and was subject to the limits set by the Statute of Anne.
- Key Points:
- The Statute of Anne allowed for a fixed term of copyright, not exceeding 28 years.
- After this period, the works would enter the public domain.
- This decision overturned previous notions of perpetual copyright.
Legacy and Importance
- Impact on Copyright Law: The case is often cited as the origin of modern copyright law. It established the principle that copyright is not a natural or perpetual right but one that is subject to statutory regulation and limitations.
- Influence Beyond the UK: The principles established in "Donaldson v Becket" influenced the development of copyright laws in other jurisdictions, including the United States.
This case marked a significant shift in understanding copyright, moving from a perception of perpetual rights towards a more regulated system where copyright has a fixed duration. This shift enabled greater public access to works after the expiration of copyright terms, significantly impacting the publishing industry, authors' rights, and the dissemination of knowledge and culture.