A week ago Attorney-General George Brandis rose at an Australian Digital Alliance forum to discuss copyright reform in the wake of the release of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s copyright review. He began by quoting Thomas Macaulay speaking in the House of Commons on copyright in 1841. "It was, I believe, the first occasion that copyright law had been debated by the House of Commons," the Attorney-General said.

Whatever his merits as a lawyer, Brandis is a dud historian. Copyright was often debated in the House of Commons long before 1841, most notably for the Copyright Act of 1709. In fact, the history of English governments trying to regulate what would eventually be termed copyright goes back to the 16th century, when an industry group called the Stationers’ Company convinced the murderous regime of Queen Mary to let it have a monopoly on printing books, in order to better enable the Crown to stifle Protestant dissent.