Tag Archives: piracy

Guess who was the world’s top pirate of intellectual property in the 18th and 19th centuries

[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.”

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The piracy of intellectuals

Computers need computer programs to run them. In recent years, computers have become more affordable. As a result, a local market for copies of computer programs is thriving.

Many Filipino computer users copy the programs they need from computer shops, or from a number of computer bulletin board systems which have proliferated around the metropolis. They then give copies of these programs to friends and colleagues, who, in turn, give copies to other friends and colleagues.

In the words of Western software companies, they are pirates. To copy commercial software and give it away to friends and colleagues is called piracy.

We’ve seen pirates in movies and they’re a mean bunch. They are villains who steal, kill, and plunder. At the movie’s ending, when these scoundrels get their just due, the audience invariably applauds. It is no fun to be called a pirate. Or to be treated like one.

Filipinos who exchange software freely and share them with others freely hardly resemble the pirates in the movies. Yet, according to Western software firms, copying without paying is piracy. So, we are pirates just the same. And we’re no better than those one-eyed villains who kill and plunder for a living.

We’ve seen people who come from or work for Western software firms. Well groomed, in business coat and tie, they look the antithesis of the pirate they hate so much. They come and visit this country of pirates, and perhaps make a little study how much they are losing from piracy in the Philippines.

Quite a number of them, however, come to the country to do some pirating themselves.

But they don’t pirate software, which is apparently beyond their dignity. They pirate people. They pirate those who write the software. They pirate our best systems analysts, our best engineers, our best programmers, and our best computer operators.

The advanced countries of the West routinely pirate from the Third World our best professionals and skilled workers, but begrudge us peoples of the Third World if we engaged in some piracy ourselves. They accuse the Third World of “piracy of intellectual property”, yet they themselves engage in the “piracy of intellectuals”.

In truth, there is quite a difference between pirating intellectual property and pirating intellectuals.

For example, it costs our country perhaps ten thousand dollars to train one doctor. Training a second doctor would cost another ten thousand dollars. Training ten doctors would cost a hundred thousand dollars. In short, given an ‘original’ doctor, it would cost us as much to make each ‘copy’ of the original. When the Americans pirate our doctors, they take away an irreplaceable resource, for it takes more than ten years to train a new doctor. The Philippines has approximately one doctor for every 6,700 citizens. When the U.S. pirates this doctor, it denies 6,700 Filipinos of the services of a doctor. And every year, the U.S. takes away hundreds of our doctors. How many Filipinos died because they could not get the services of a doctor on time?

What about a computer program? Whatever amount Lotus Corporation spent in developing their spreadsheet program, it costs practically nothing to make a second or third copy of the program. It would take a few seconds for them to make each copy. When we Filipinos pirate their program, we have not stolen any irreplaceable resource, nor will it take Lotus 10 years to replace the program, nor have we denied any American citizen the use of the spreadsheet program. It is still there, for Americans to use. We make a copy of their program, we don’t steal it, because we have not taken anything away. We have made our own copy, but they still have the original.

Pirating a computer program is quite different from pirating a doctor. When the U.S. pirates our doctors, it doesn’t take a copy and leave the original behind. Instead, it takes the original and leaves nothing behind.

But you can’t compare the two, some would say. The U.S. pays for our doctors with much higher salaries, so you can’t call it piracy. Third World countries copy software without paying the commercial price, therefore they are pirates. If you have the money to pirate people, it stops being called piracy and becomes a respectable activity. But if you can’t afford it, sorry.

On the other hand, we can also say that when the West draws away our professionals with attractive salary offers, they take away not a ‘copy’ but the ‘original’, and we are left with none. We’ve lost the services of these professionals for good. If we make a copy of their software, we never take away the original, and we leave them with as much as they originally had. We can even gift them an extra copy, gratis. To call this stealing is to speak in metaphors; as in a stolen glance, or a stolen kiss. They might say they lost a sale, but it is only an opportunity to sell and make a profit that they are referring to. In many instances, the opportunity isn’t even there at all.

It is as if a company who insists on a monopoly of fish, accused us of causing them lost sales because we let loose fingerlings all over the lakes and rivers, so that people may catch them and eat. Fish, like software, love to go forth and multiply, whatever else their original creators might have intended. And it is all for the better, because this means more people can enjoy them.

In fact, this distinction sets the new information technologies apart from the traditional services sector. Information, if it already exists in the modern high- technology form such as computer files on a diskette, can be duplicated at practically no cost. It is therefore in perfect form to be given away freely to those who need it. Given a computer, software would in effect reproduce itself on the machine at the slightest provocation, copying itself for next to nothing. However, there is, so far, no easy way to freely duplicate the accumulated information in a doctor’s head. So we must spend ten thousand dollars and more than ten years, just to make a second copy.

This is why we actually do very little damage when we ‘pirate’ a copy of a computer program, and why the U.S. does a lot of harm when it pirates one of our doctors.

This piracy debate will become even more important in the future because advanced countries are now developing computer programs that can mimic what goes on in a doctor’s mind. The United States, which has been routinely pirating our best doctors and nurses for decades, will probably raise a big howl if we pirated this one program, even if we had no intention of denying them the original.

Copying software is a benign case of piracy. Pirating doctors is a malignant case.

We have been victims of Western countries of this malignant case of piracy for a long time. They should be the last to complain when they are affected with a benign one.

(Chapter 4, Towards a Political Economy of Information by Roberto Verzola)