Three Eras of Copying
This is one of a series of posts; the last post was here.
Jump across time quickly: from medieval monks to Gutenberg to 1959 and the Xerox 914 and finally to Sean Fanning, who created Napster. These events define three eras of copying. Call the first period Handcrafted Content; the second, Gutenberg’s Professionals; and the third, starting with the Xerox 914, Distributed Content and Copying. In defining these eras, focus on the second-copy costs for the author/publisher versus those of a person in possession of a single copy of the work. Not the cost of producing the first copy, but instead, first copy in hand, how much does it cost to create a copy of that copy? Does the author/publisher have an advantage over a person who has acquired a physical copy of the work?
In the monk era—the pre-printing press era—all copying was done by hand. These were manuscripts copied one-by-one in the scriptorium. There weren’t strong advantages—economies of scale if we are going to be economists—in producing second copies. All copies were expensive and the author/publisher, having produced one copy of the work, was no better situated to make another copy of the work than would be any holder of the work. To be sure, the technology of copying—the ability to read and write—may not have been widely distributed, so this was a key way in which copies were controlled, but presumably only the literate were much interested in copies anyhow, and for the literate, the costs of producing the second copy were high but roughly identical to the costs of the author.
The printing press changed all of that. The printing press obviously lowered printing costs generally, but note what it did for second-copy costs. Those costs dropped dramatically for publishers but changed very little for someone in possession of a physical copy of the book. Before, in the handcrafted era of the monks, publishers and copy holders faced the same, very high, second-copy costs. In the Gutenberg era, the author/publisher was much better situated than a copy recipient to produce another copy. That cost advantage served as an important way in which the effective rights of the author/publisher to control copies were made meaningful. This is not to say that we didn’t have piracy, but it was of a different sort, say a printer running a secret print runs for a pirate.
The third era of copying is defined by cheap, symmetric copying technology. The company then known as Haloid Co. created the modern era of copying in 1959, when it introduced its new 914 product line. Haloid had created the first automatic plain-paper copier based on its xerography copying process, and soon changed its name to Xerox. Before Xerox, copies were made using clumsy technologies such as carbon paper. I remember carbon paper from my childhood, but you might not even know what it is. You put a piece of carbon paper between two sheets of plain paper, rolled all three sheets together into a typewriter and banged away. The typewriter key struck the typewriter ribbon, which in turn made an imprint on the first plain sheet. The carbon paper then put that same imprint on the second plain sheet, so two copies were created. Don’t even ask how you fixed a mistake if you typed “there” when you really meant “three.”
Before Xerox, in the mid-1950s, we were making 20 million copies a year in the United States. With the 914, by 1965, we were up to 9.5 billion. One year later, 14 billion. By 1985, we were making 700 billion copies across the globe. The numbers are staggering, but also don’t miss the key change in control. Authors made carbon copies, not readers. The person who received a carbon copy of a manuscript couldn’t easily create another copy from that copy. You could retype the entire manuscript of course, but that is no different than our monks who could re-copy medieval texts by hand. But with xeroxing, you could make a copy from a copy. Xerox decentralized copying. It moved control from others to users and it altered the consequences of the copy. A copy carried with it the ability to be copied. Xerox broke the control defined by Gutenberg.
Somewhat. Think about all of the things that you wouldn’t actually copy. A novel on the best-seller list? Today’s newspaper? You mean, the whole thing? The new Cosmo? You could copy each of those, but photocopying whole works was almost always far inferior—worse copies that cost more—than just buying the original. Plus to make a copy you have to have access to the original. Even if you wanted to copy the hot novel, you certainly couldn’t walk into a book store to copy it. You needed to borrow it from a friend, and if she was done, why not read her copy?
So where would we photocopy copyrighted works? The library and in universities. We copied stored works—works that you couldn’t purchase contemporaneously—usually to unbundle them—one article from a year-old newspaper or a single journal article from an issue from a decade ago. Copying of this sort extended traditional sharing of works through libraries. This posed issues for copyright holders—would corporate libraries buy only a single copy of a journal rather than duplicate copies knowing that they could always photocopy particular articles?—but usually Xeroxing didn’t mean the copying of an entire work rather than buying the original. With photocopying, it was still easier for the original author to make the next copy of the entire work, but users were much better situated to make partial copies of works, since users knew exactly what parts they wanted.
The VCR came closer to allowing full substitution, meaning make a copy instead of buying the original, at least once we focus on what it means to “buy” over-the-air TV. In the beginning—before prerecorded tapes became the predominant use of the VCR—the VCR was used for time-shifting: watching a show at a later time that you could have watched for free originally. This wasn’t a copy used to substitute for the original; it was the original, but just at a more convenient time. Not quite, of course, and there was the fear, the fear that VCR watchers would never see another commercial and that if everyone stopped watching “live” television, we would need a new way to pay for television. Over-the-air television is based on control over copies. Lose that control through the VCR and we can no longer assume that consumers will be exposed to commercials, and without commercials, the historic business model for broadcast TV vanishes.