‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.’ (John Whyclif’s translation of Ecclesiastes 1:9, 1382)
Peter Josephon, researcher at Uppsala University Department of History of Science and Ideas (Sweden) has published a fascinating article in Respons magazine describing the impact of cheap printing on universities, which has deep resonances with today’s copyright situation.
Traditionally, university teachers turned a nice profit by reading aloud from expensive and hard to get hold off books and personal manuscripts during lectures, charging a small fee for the service. However, around the year 1800 they were getting in a flap because falling printing costs meant that students were increasingly visiting libraries to perform their own reading and research.
With cheaply printed books becoming increasingly available, students no longer needed to pay to listen to readings, but could (and did) visit libraries read the books for themselves instead.
Alarmed by this threat to their income, many lecturers admonished others not to publish books in their fields lest they lose their monopoly on the information, and famous philologist Johann David Michaelis of Göttingen campaigned to limit student access to libraries to only two hours a day.
Fortunately common sense (and practical realities) won through and, thanks to the sage advice of philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the now redundant old style read-aloud lectures were replaced with seminar groups where lectures and students discussed books together. In addition to this, rather than being figures of authority whose job it was to dispense rare knowledge, lecturers were also expected to become researchers, tasked with discovering new information.
These ideas were further developed by Prussian philosopher and founder of the University of Berlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who required all lecturers at his university to perform research in parallel with their teaching duties, and who popularised the idea across the globe. The result was a raising of the intellectual bar, and a vast improvement in teaching practice, the benefit of which we still feel today.
The parallels between this story and the modern day copyright situation, where a small-minded elite are desperately clinging on to their outdated financial privileges, is obvious, as is the fact that when resistance from this self-interested group was overcome, everyone benefited.