Tag Archives: Eighteenth-Century America

The benefits of being a pirate, part II

Part I of this post briefly laid out a few of the benefits which arose from pirate publishing in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.  Smaller formats and cheaper prices helped increase the distribution of printed material and the ideas within, and allowed readers to begin consuming greater quantities of texts.  These benefits were apparent to many contemporary individuals familiar with publishing practices, and are being verified by scholars like myself.  However, debates about publishing piracy took on new dimensions in America during the American Revolution.

Freedom of information became a critical issue during the American Revolution.  As Joe Adelman described, the fight for freedom of information took on revolutionary tones during the 1760s.  Not only was the circulation of information considered vital to the American war effort, but it was also seen as crucial to the development of a republican citizenry.  In order to be a virtuous citizen of the new republic, individuals needed to be informed.  This basic premise underpinned American understanding of the role of copyright.  Yes, American authors should be rewarded, but it was equally important to prevent information, i.e. publications, from being monopolized by copyright holders.  American authors were to be rewarded and nurtured with copyright protection, but citizens must have information, so copyright periods were kept short and all foreign texts were fair game for reprinters in America.  In practice, during the eighteenth century, American copyright was applied to only a small percentage of texts, even among those produced by American authors.  The economies of the book trades ensured that publishers were often better-off to risk being pirated than to spend the money to have a work copyrighted.

The American example emphasizes two important issues.  First, America’s founding father’s recognized that copyright had the potential to produce monopolies of information that were inimical to republican citizenship.  Secondly they recognized that copyright, at least in a limited form, was important for the encouragement of authors, and that some compromise was needed in both directions.  The United States was very late to join with other nations to extend copyright protections internationally, because that extension conflicted with the American beliefs (and established business practices).

So what lessons can we take from this example?  First, I think it is important to be aware that even the American government has not always seen piracy as an evil.  American beliefs about the necessity of an informed citizenry came with a price, namely ensuring that all citizens had access to the important information, even if that meant limiting the rights of copyright holders.  Secondly, seeing the benefits our eighteenth-century ancestors took from publishing piracy should prompt us to re-evaluate our current intellectual property system.  Even if we choose to continue enforcing copyright protection, we should also be looking for ways to increase access and distribution of ideas for the benefit of everyone.

Hopefully this little jaunt through eighteenth century piracy has provided some additional perspectives to the contemporary issues facing the world and has raised awareness of the long history of debates over piracy.

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