The publishing industry started with the invention of the printing press. What used to be a time-consuming and difficult task, namely, making copies of books, became much simpler and fast. Thousands of copies could be made within days. This meant that owners of printing machines could make thousands of copies of books and sell them to make money. Of course, this technology benefited society because it made books easily available. And it also harmed the environment because trees, and later forests, were cut down to make paper for books.
It was in this context that the Statute of Anne came into existence, in 1710, in England. This is considered to be the first truly copyright law in the modern sense, and was applicable only to England, Scotland and Wales. The law made the author the owner of the rights for publishing so that no one could publish his work without his permission. The objective of the law was to ensure that the author gets some part of the profit from printing and selling his work, so that he will have an incentive to create more works. The idea was that society benefited from his efforts and so society should give something in return for his efforts. It seems the belief was that money was an incentive for creativity (and probably also that money was the only incentive, an idea that we know is wrong today). Possibly, money was a greater incentive those days than it is today because money and power were much more concentrated in a few hands in those periods. On the other hand, writers were more likely to be from the moneyed families those days, and, therefore, money may not have been such a great incentive. Anyway, the law gave the right to the author for a period of 28 years, after which his work fell into the public domain.
Soon, this idea of copyright became popular in many countries and they started implementing similar laws. The first US copyright law came into existence in 1790. Here, the author was made the owner of the work for a period of 14 years, with a provision for him to extend it for another 14 years. Of course, if the author is alive. Subsequently, many countries implemented laws more or less similar to this. In 1886, the Berne Convention ensured that there was no need to register copyright. Instead, any work became bound by copyright the moment it was created. While there were technological changes in printing during this period, the changes were minimal and did not bring about any fundamental change in the benefits the author and society derived from the law.
Perhaps, the most drastic change in copyright law came in 1998, apparently on lobbying by the Disney group. This law made the copyright restrictions valid till seventy years after the lifetime of the creator. This law was, in a sense, a blatant violation of the natural rights of the citizens and many people firmly believed that this curbs creativity instead of promoting it. The so-called Sonny-Bono Act is known as the Mickey Mouse Act to express this annoyance and in reference to the role played by the Disney group in getting it implemented. After all, virtually all new creation has some basis on earlier creative works and ideas. Nothing is really totally new.
By this time, a new and powerful technology was already in existence and was becoming ubiquitous. This is Information Communication Technology, or simply, ICT. This technology could handle not only text, but also sound, still images and moving images (videos). This technology also was capable of reaching creative works like text, image, sound and video to anyone in any part of the world within a very short time. So, apart from reproducing (which the press has been doing for text), this technology could also carry the material long distances in very short durations. And the total cost for reproducing and transporting became almost insignificant. And, most importantly, it became almost impossible to prevent people from making copies.
The sad part is that the publishing industry remained oblivious of the implications of this technology. They still largely remain tied to the old paradigm of printing and distributing. While they also started distributing copies of works (largely music and video) in digital format, they still cling to the old method of trying to control the copying of digital material, although it has been shown time and again by software companies that there is virtually no way one can stop people from making copies of digital content. However, the book publishing industry is still surviving in the old paradigm since most people would like to read a printed book rather than a digital book on a computer.
However, things are still changing and, unless the publishing companies learn to accept new realities, they may just disappear, though not in a hurry. Hardware makers have started bringing out book readers that can be carried around just like a book, and can contain a large number of books in digital format in its memory. And one can read the books just like a printed book. The technology is just maturing and we can certainly be sure of seeing people carrying such "books" on trains within a few years. This means that books will soon by available in digital format, and will, therefore, be copied and read by many people. In spite of that, it is likely that some people will continue to prefer printed books at least for a few more decades. But will they be able to get their copies? The publishers may not find it economical to print books unless there is a certain minimum demand.
This also raises another question. When I buy a printed book, I am able to lend the book to a friend who would like to read it without violating any law. But what will be the situation when books become mostly digital? How will I give a book to a friend without making a copy? And copying is prevented by copyright law. So what do I do? Do I allow the law to break my relationship with my friend or do I break the law and retain my relationship? Should a law put a person into such a dilemma? Shouldn't the law change when the technology changes?
Well, there are developments that point to a new paradigm in publishing. But more about that on another day. I will just say that the idea of freedom that the Free Software movement has put forward plays an important role in the scenario that is developing.