“To every book belongs its copy”

News that the New York Times will charge some categories of users to see its on-line content again raises the thorny, controversial debate about paying for content on the internet.  For some paying for any “knowledge” on the internet is heresy, for others the internet is just another medium, and like print, radio and television, content should be paid for, not least to reward authors.

The origins of an assertable right for authors to benefit from copying of their works, go back to UK at the beginning of the C18th and were embodied in the US constitution a few decades later.  For those that like the intellectual pursuit, the earliest origins of copyright are open to conjecture and debate, with Ireland being a popular progenitor.  Whichever and whatever, the concept of an author having control over copying of their work has become fundamental and universal.  Except perhaps in the world of the internet.

Copyright was seen in C18th England as a way of promoting learning, sharing knowledge.  In the early C21st, the debate about freedom of access to knowledge continues with the arrival of the internet giving new vigour to those who believe that ownership of knowledge is inherently shared amongst all humanity.  In some cultures, for example in India, the concept of a community having a collective shared knowledge not only exists, but is promoted.  In most western cultures copyright has become another commercial tool, one that the New York Times, needs to use, it seems, to stay alive as sales of the newsprint version of the paper fail to be economic.

It seems inevitable that as other media become uneconomic, business will increasingly follow the “paid for” content model, and use the internet to publish and distribute content simply because it is more economic to do so. Those who see the internet as a universal reading library are going to be increasingly disappointed, and the line in the sand between “free” knowledge and paid-for content will become increasingly blurred.