The French Lesson

In his article "Who will Own Your Next Good Idea," Charles Mann tells the reader a story set in 18th century France. In the periods immediately before and after the revolution. During this time of political upheaval, the country made major changes in its copyright laws. Before the revolution the French guild of printers and booksellers held a monopoly over the book trade. To maintain good relations with the government they "helped police to suppress anything that upset the royal sensibilities or ran contrary to their interests" (Mann part 3, 2). Because the copyright laws of the time were excessive, pirats reacted more fiercely than ever. Underground printers ran an enormous and efficient operation. Although record companies today think that artists will benifit from the expansion and more strictly enforced copyright law, artists in this situation struggled as they tried to "persuade underground book sellers to publish their work" (Mann part 3, 2) which oftern the guild would not touch due to censorship or some other reason. Mostly, pirates stole works that the guild was publishing because they knew people would buy them. By one estimation "'about half'" of the books in France were illegal before the revolution (Mann part 3, 2).

After the revolution, the new government, in an attempt to amend this situation, did away with copyright. This had disastrous consequences, however. According to Mann, "liberation from copyright turned every bookseller into a pirate" (Mann part 3, 3). Often the exact same things were published at the same time by different publishers. The quality of printed material decreased sharply. Smut and gossip were widely ditibuted, while classic literature went out of print. Because the classic literature would not sell fast enough, it could easily be copied, thus makng it even more difficult to sell. Printers printed what would be quickly bought. Eventually the law was changed and a middle ground was affirmed instead.