While today’s book publishers, movie makers, and music producers claim the entire creative industry would end without copyright, history proves the opposite. The first copyright statue was introduced in 1710 in Great Britain, several thousand years after the invention of the written word, and almost a full century after Shakespeare produced some of the most influential creative works in history.
Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and several other poems, made a substantial living, and is still widely read, performed, and praised without any copyright protection. Even in the age of copyright, Shakespeare has made more than 420 films, making him the most filed author in any language. This year alone, more than 1,200 editions of Shakespeare’s works have been published, 445 within the last 90 days (according to Amazon).
How, if copyright is so vital to the creation of creative works, did Shakespeare accomplish what he did? And if copyright is even more important now, than why do filmmakers and publishers still reproduce Shakespeare’s works?
Shakespeare, as a genre and even industry unto himself, shows how copyright adds little to no incentive to creating new works, but rather can be seen as an impediment to such creation.
First, let us remember the time Shakespeare wrote in. In the 16th century, writers were valued for their language and style rather than originality. In fact, originality for storytelling is a modern value. Almost everyone of Shakespeare’s plays was obviously copied from another creative work or historical subject. Groklaw counted more than half a dozen cribbed sources in King Lear that when looked at with modern copyright would have cost the Bard hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and possibly criminal prosecution. Yet we praise King Lear as a masterpiece, not as an illegal piece of piracy.
Shakespeare made glorious new works by copying other works, both past and present, something he could easily do without copyright. Today, he would need permission from each and every source – permission he might not even get.
Today, we still praise new works that are purposefully based on Shakespeare’s plays, yet innovate in some new way. West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), Lion King (Hamlet), Kiss Me Kate (Taming of the Shrew), and Forbidden Planet (Tempest) for example. Or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead which uses side characters from Hamlet to tell a new story within Hamlet itself.
Because all of Shakespeare’s plays are in the public domain, a massive amount of creativity can happen building on what Shakespeare. Shakespeare productions and publications compete with each other, encouraging more creativity, whether in casting, interpretation, or other radical approaches. That’s why you can see a musical Romeo & Juliet, a full-text, four hour Hamlet, and a female (Helen Mirren) Prospero (known as Prospera) in this year’s Tempest.
You might think Shakespeare is an anomaly, someone who transcends copyright. That, of course, ignores that Shakespeare’s contemporaries, many of whom were more famous at the time, also wrote without the benefit of copyright (since copyright wasn’t to be invented for another 100 years). And Shakespeare isn’t the only author Hollywood and publishing loves to reproduce. There’s Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm, Homer, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and all of mythology and the Bible to name a few.