Tag Archives: Piracy

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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The benefits of being a pirate, part I

A Copyright Will Protect You From Pirates - by Ioan Sameli - http://bit.ly/lJrePv. Licensed under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license

A Copyright Will Protect You From Pirates – by Ioan Sameli – http://bit.ly/lJrePv. Licensed under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license


It is not every day that the issues that are so central to my work on eighteenth century publishing are such flashpoints of contemporary debate. However this is exactly what is happening with the controversy over internet piracy and the pending SOPA legislation in the US. Here we have a timely opportunity to learn from the past. (Yeah for History!)  In the eighteenth century, piracy was the scourge of corporate entities and copyright holders, but many individuals and governments acknowledged that it also had benefits. Hopefully this activity will provide some food-for-thought and a bit of balance for these polarizing and high-stakes questions. I plan on focusing on piracy in the eighteenth century, but for a great road map to trace these developments over time, see Adrian Johns’ book Piracy: the intellectual property wars from Gutenberg to Gates.

First, we need a bit of definition of what publishing piracy was in the eighteenth century. In Britain copyright and trade courtesies protected texts.  Any unauthorized reprints were piracies. However in Ireland and America it was perfectly legal to reprint British texts, even if they were protected by copyright. It was only if these reprints were then imported into Britain that they became piracies.  In America, texts could be registered for copyright, first by state and later nationally, but this only protected American authors from American pirates. Copyright was a very local concept. This parallels current issues of internet piracy, where discrepancies between national copyright law and practices of use create opportunities for pirates to flourish.

Ireland was a unique case, not because they reprinted texts copyrighted elsewhere, most nations did this to some degree, but because even within Ireland there was no copyright regime for Irish texts. The Irish publishing industry became experts in producing quick and cheap reprints of British texts, both for their own market and for exporting to places like America.  In the eighteenth century Ireland stands as the premier example of pirate publishing.  Though these publications were legal in Ireland, these products were often transformed into piracies as they traveled around the Atlantic.

There were several benefits to these ‘pirate’ editions.  Richard Sher, in the Enlightenment and the Book, asserts that the Enlightenment traveled across the Atlantic on a wave of Irish reprints.   Without Irish pirates, the ideas of Scottish authors like Adam Smith would not have had the impacted that they did.  Pirate editions spread ideas by increasing distribution of books.  These editions created greater competition within the publishing world, and opened new markets for print.  Even the monopolistic London publishers were forced to change their practices to compete with Irish reprints for the American export market.  The greater availability and lower prices of books changed people’s reading habits.  Reading became more casual and commonplace, even before the great increases in literacy in the nineteenth century.

It could be argued that pirate publishers benefited everyone in the English-speaking Atlantic world, except possibly copyright holders (and there may even be an argument for them).

Despite the fact that eighteenth century Ireland was often touted as the ideal ‘Pirate Kingdom’, in the words of Adrian Johns, it should not be forgotten that it was in many ways dependent on the local characteristics of copyright for these advantages.  Without Britain and its copyright system, the Irish reprint industry would have had less incentive and advantage to provide the public with cheaper alternatives.

However price was not the only benefit of pirate publications.  Part II of this post will focus on America, and how piracy not only benefited readers, but was an intrinsic republican value central to the building of a new nation.



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