Public libraries started appearing in the mid-1800s. At the time, publishers went absolutely berserk: they had been lobbying for the lending of books to become illegal, as reading a book without paying anything first was “stealing”, they argued. As a consequence, they considered private libraries at the time to be hotbeds of crime and robbery. (Those libraries were so-called “subscription libraries”, so they were argued to be for-profit, too.)
British Parliament at the time, unlike today’s politicians, wisely disagreed with the publishing industry lobby – the copyright industry of the time. Instead, they saw the economic value in an educated and cultural populace, and passed a law allowing free public libraries in 1850, so that local libraries were built throughout Britain, where the public could take part of knowledge and culture for free.
In other words, they made explicit exceptions to the copyright monopoly for the benefit of public access to culture and knowledge. In most copyright monopoly legislation today, it says explicitly that monopoly holders to not have any kind of right to object to their works being displayed, read, and lent from public libraries. This can be traced back to the insights of 1850.
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Via Chuck Sherwood, Senior Associate, TeleDimensions, Inc