Piracy built the US publishing industry

Americans were once enthusiastic pirates. The company that eventually became HarperCollins made a fortune pirating the work of Charles Dickens and other British authors.

For decades, the US government turned a blind eye to the pirating of intellectual property, and the practice helped some of the country's largest book publishers make their fortunes.

We've written a lot lately about the US government's attempt to protect the country's intellectual property against overseas-based online pirates, nowhere more forcefully than in the case of Megaupload. Last month, the US government indicted Kim Dotcom, Megaupload's founder, on criminal copyright charges. He was arrested in New Zealand, and US officials will attempt to bring him to the US to stand trial.

It just so happens that we've also been reading the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. The book's authors, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, describe the birth of New York's publishing sector in the 1830s and the 1840s, and guess what? The US government's relaxed attitude towards copyright at the time gave publishers a big boost.

According to the book, one of the most lucrative revenue streams for US publishers during this period came from churning out unauthorised copies of British books before their rivals could. Authors didn't get a dime, say Burrows and Wallace. But don't feel too bad for the British publishers; they'd done exactly the same thing to French authors.

From the book:

Some [US publishers] sent agents to England with orders to grab volumes from bookstalls ... and ship them west by fast packet. Copy was then rushed from the dock to the composing room, presses run night and day and books hurried to the stores or hawked in the streets like hot corn.

According to Burrows and Wallace, one of the most successful pirates was the company that eventually became HarperCollins, now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

It wasn't as if the US government had no copyright laws at the time. The country put copyright protections on the books in 1787, but those only covered US works. The government simply "refused as yet to recognise foreign copyrights", according to the authors of Gotham.

In January 1842, Charles Dickens visited New York, a city in love with the British author. His stories illustrated the evils of poverty and class divisions, and these resonated with a New York population that included large numbers of immigrants who lived in squalor.

Dickens visited the US "partly for sightseeing, partly in a fruitless attempt to promote an international copyright law that would require Americans to pay for the pleasure of reading him", according to Gotham. How did he fare?

Not well. When he wrote about his New York trip, the piece was promptly pirated by US publishers. The government didn't agree to respect international copyright laws for another 40 years.

There's not much significance to all of this other than to show that countries with little intellectual property to protect often have little interest in copyright. This may help explain why the United States is so focused on blocking suspected overseas pirate sites.


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MatthewP6 posted a comment   

Even in the 60s piracy was rife in the US. Ace Publishers published unauthorised copies of The Lord of the Rings for which Tolkien received no royalties. It took action from Tolkien himself to see this edition pulled off the shelves.

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