[This piece appears as Chapter 3 of my book Towards a Political Economy of Information, published in 2004. I am posting it here because of current efforts by the U.S. and other advanced countries to tighten even further what is already a very strict global intellectual property protectionist regime.]
U.S. piracy in the 19th century
Nineteenth century America was a major center of piracy. The principal target of U.S. pirates was the rich variety of British books and periodicals. The U.S. was a perennial headache among British authors and publishers, because foreign authors had no rights in America. American publishers and printers, led by Harpers of New York and Careys of Philadelphia, routinely violated British copyright and “reprinted a very wide range of British publications.”
James Barnes, who wrote an excellent book on this subject (Authors, Publishers and Politicians: The quest for an Anglo-American copyright agreement 1815-1854, Ohio State University Press, 1974), said that the Americans were “suspicious about international copyright,” and were afraid that recognizing international copyright meant “exploitation and domination of their book trade.” Barnes noted that “as a young nation, the United States wanted the freedom to borrow literature as well as technology from any quarter of the globe, and it was not until 1891 that Congress finally recognized America’s literary independence by authorizing reciprocal copyright agreements with foreign powers.”
Throughout the 19th century, a group of American authors and Anglophiles led a persistent but futile campaign to get a copyright treaty between the U.S. and Britain ratified. But their efforts were overcome by a much stronger lobby for free access to British publications. Authors like Noah Webster of the U.S. and Charles Dickens of Britain campaigned vigorously, but time and again, the U.S. Senate rejected proposed laws or treaties that would have granted copyright to foreign authors in the U.S.
Indeed, strong laws existed for the protection of local authors, but foreign authors had no rights in the U.S., and all foreign works were fair game for American publishers and printers.
As Barnes put it, “If Americans thought of the topic [i.e., copyrights] at all they were concerned with protecting domestic copyright and not the rights of foreigners. As a country, nineteenth-century America was akin to a present-day underdeveloped nation which recognizes its dependence on those more commercially and technologically advanced, and desires the fruits of civilization in the cheapest and most convenient ways. Reprinting English literature seemed easy and inexpensive, and so America borrowed voraciously.”
Barnes continued: “In 1831, ‘An Act to Amend the Several Acts Respecting Copyrights’ was signed. It extended the copyright term from fourteen to twenty-eight years, with the option of renewal for an additional fourteen. If an author died, his widow or children could apply for the extension. For the first time, the law allowed musical compositions to be copyrighted. But not a word on international copyright. In fact, foreign authors were explicitly barred from protection, which in essence safeguarded reprints.”
Even the U.S. president at that time, John Quincy Adams, was himself “strongly opposed to international copyright.”