All Articles

⚖️📖 Who Owns This Sentence? by David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu

Not a Book Report

I enjoy reflecting on the movies, TV, books and other media that I consume. I’m notoriously sentimental. This series documents the books that I read. These aren’t reviews or recommendations. Just a list. For me. Mostly so that I can page through what I read, where I was, and when.

Why did I read it?

I subscribe to the print edition of The Economist. I treasure it. They routinely recommend books in their Culture section and this one sounded interesting given the conversations around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and copyright. I was wrong.

What is it?

Category Value
Title Who Owns This Sentence?: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs
Author David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu
Year Published 2024
Format Kindle
Pages 380

Publisher Summary

A fascinating and original history of an idea that now controls and monetizes almost everything we do.

Copyright is everywhere. Your smartphone incorporates thousands of items of intellectual property. Someone owns the reproduction rights to photographs of your dining table. At this very moment, battles are raging over copyright in the output of artificial intelligence programs. Not only books but wallpaper, computer programs, pop songs, cartoon characters, snapshots, and cuddly toys are now deemed to be intellectual properties—making copyright a labyrinthine construction of laws with colorful and often baffling rationales covering almost all products of human creativity.

It wasn’t always so. Copyright has its roots in eighteenth-century London, where it was first established to limit printers’ control of books. But a handful of little-noticed changes in the late twentieth century brought about a new enclosure of the cultural commons, concentrating ownership of immaterial goods in very few hands. Copyright’s metastasis can’t be understood without knowing its backstory, a long tangle of high ideals, low greed, opportunism, and word-mangling that allowed poems and novels (and now, even ringtones and databases) to be treated as if they were no different from farms and houses. Principled arguments against copyright arose from the start and nearly abolished it in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, countless revisions have made copyright ever stronger.

Who Owns This Sentence? is an often-humorous and always-enlightening cultural, legal, and global history of the idea that intangible things can be owned, and makes a persuasive case for seeing copyright as an engine of inequality in the twenty-first century.

How did I read it?

Category Value
Date Started April 8, 2024
Date Finished April 22, 2024
Places Read Lisbon, Comporta

Notes - No Spoilers

  • I’m somewhat skeptical about their assumptions around incentive. I write this goofy blog with no expectation of revenue, but I think a lot of authors (and certainly inventors) have some vision in their heads of making money. It might not pan out, as they cite, but it probably does spurn folks on.
  • I really appreciated the discussions around the idea of applying copyright protection to something that is discovered rather than invented. The laws of nature cannot be owned makes sense. What happens with you invent something that depends on the application of those laws is where it gets interesting.
  • I always like seeing the Kant commentary that “writing is less of a product than a record of rela or imaginary speech…” We really went the other direction with that one.
  • Most of the book covers the origins of copyright (printers/publishers vs authors vs governments) and then how it has evolved in an entirely unstructured way through treaty attempts and case law. At some point that narrative is beaten to death.
  • I did enjoy the stories about the expansion of copyright. Engraved art is made by pressing, just as books are - Statue of Anne should protect it. Music is written, just like books - protected. What about fabric? This is a pattern printed on to a medium, just like books - Calico Printers Act of 1787 introduces the idea of originiality and applies to fabric.
  • I completely forgot that the Constitution covers rights granted to authors and inventors.
  • The comparison of Revolutionary France to the modern Internet is fun. The idea of building a society where all knowledge is avaialble and being against censorship running headfirst into the consequences of that theory in the form of libel and sedition. The Sieyès-Condorcet proposal is a fun comparison.
  • The post mortem protections shifting from a protection for publishers to one that helped widows and orphans.
  • The US was really the wild west and benefitted from total disregard of global copyright law for decades - until we started creating our own commercial art and took it seriously.
  • I did not realize the Red Cross symbol was (probably) just the inversion of the Swiss flag because that is where the meeting was convened as part of the first Geneva Convention in 1864.
  • The discussions of translated work was something I had not seriously considered. The backlash to the idea that the translators would just edit the original as they saw fit. Their own popularity. The tradeoffs once that work was made less lucrative by having publisher and author control.
  • Fascinating that those pushing to do away with patents in the 19th Century were, in many cases, corporations like the railway companies that did not want to deal with securing patent approval for every little detail involved in a giant mechanical operation like a train.

Published Apr 22, 2024

Austinite in Lisbon. VP of Product at Cloudflare.