July 24, 2004

Freedom, piracy and lobbying

In the middle of the 19th century, there was a raging controversy about copyright piracy, and American publishers lobbied Congress repeatedly about it. You may be surprised, however, to learn that the publishers were the pirates, and that for many decades Congress protected their freedom to re-publish and sell works as they pleased -- at least if the authors were foreign.

According to an article by Kevin Baker in the latest American Heritage,

In 1842 there was still no international copyright law, a condition that was stunting American letters and depriving authors on both sides of the Atlantic of a living. Britain was willing to recognize the copyright of foreign writers—but only if their countries reciprocated.

This American publishers adamantly refused to do. Instead, they competed in bribing English pressmen to get early sheets of British books. The sheets were rushed by boat over to the United States, where the jolly pirates churned out cheap editions in a matter of hours.

This was one of the (alas many) things that annoyed Charles Dickens about America. He brought it up a few times during his American lecture tour in 1842, which did not make him popular with editorial writers:

... the Hartford Times bluntly informed him, “It happens that we want no advice on the subject and it will be better for Mr. Dickens if he refrains from introducing the subject hereafter.” Dickens’s biographer Edgar Johnson writes: “Other newspapers asserted that he was no gentleman, that he was a mercenary scoundrel, that he was abusing the hospitality of the United States… . Anonymous letters echoed all these attacks in every key of scurrility.”

Anticipatory plagiarism of the Slashdot hordes?

I should say that I'm a stalwart supporter of free software and of open access to the scholarly and scientific literature. It's normal that over the past 150 years the industry of "content providers" has lobbied on behalf of what they see as their interests. But it's interesting how different their interests have seemed to them at different times. I guess that over in China, there are pirate DVD and CD factory owners who are "lobbying" (which in that context probably means bribing) the authorities to protect their rights. When I first visited Japan, the bookstores were full of pirated editions (mostly from Taiwan, as I recall) of American and European scientific and scholarly books. I suppose that those publishers probably lobbied too, until Taiwan finally caved in and signed up to international copyright agreements, not too many years ago.

In Dickens' case, several publishers added insult to injury by stealing his books and also giving them bad reviews, at least in the case of his American Notes:

James Bennett’s New York Herald pilloried the book as the product of “that famous penny-a-liner” with “the most coarse, vulgar, impudent, and superficial” mind. This set new standards in gall, inasmuch as the Herald had been an active pirate of American Notes. Bennett’s pressmen sold 50,000 copies of the book in two days’ time, without so much as a dime going to that famous penny-a-liner.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 24, 2004 03:27 PM