ORCID

https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6339-0964

Abstract

Copyright is usually justified with arguments about defending the natural right of authors to control their creations, or claims that limited monopolies spur innovation for the greater good of society. I contrarily assert that the primary intent of copyright has generally been to protect powerful industries in advanced countries and ensure control over emerging markets that rely on the importation of intellectual property.

As global trade expanded in the 19th century, a patchwork quilt of domestic copyright laws and bilateral treaties failed to stem rampant infringement that hurt publishers’ export revenues. Re-printers and readers, however, benefited from lower prices. The early United States explicitly limited copyright protection to its citizens. As a result, its publishing industry grew exponentially in the 19th century, largely through cheap reprints of European works. Not until it had itself become a literary power did it finally join the international copyright regime to benefit from its protections. In the 20th century, some developing countries successfully emulated America’s earlier approach to development, but the intensification of restrictions in recent IP treaties now limits this strategy through threats of economic retaliation.

This paper takes a whirlwind tour through five centuries of international copyright history, challenging dominant narratives about its purpose, beneficiaries, and impact on the global public good. In an age where laws have become ever more skewed in favor of owners and against users, alternatives such as Open Access are offered that, in the long term, will facilitate a more equitable distribution of knowledge resources.

DOI

https://doi.org/10.5703/1288284317061

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International Copyright in Historical Context: Who Are the Real Pirates?

Copyright is usually justified with arguments about defending the natural right of authors to control their creations, or claims that limited monopolies spur innovation for the greater good of society. I contrarily assert that the primary intent of copyright has generally been to protect powerful industries in advanced countries and ensure control over emerging markets that rely on the importation of intellectual property.

As global trade expanded in the 19th century, a patchwork quilt of domestic copyright laws and bilateral treaties failed to stem rampant infringement that hurt publishers’ export revenues. Re-printers and readers, however, benefited from lower prices. The early United States explicitly limited copyright protection to its citizens. As a result, its publishing industry grew exponentially in the 19th century, largely through cheap reprints of European works. Not until it had itself become a literary power did it finally join the international copyright regime to benefit from its protections. In the 20th century, some developing countries successfully emulated America’s earlier approach to development, but the intensification of restrictions in recent IP treaties now limits this strategy through threats of economic retaliation.

This paper takes a whirlwind tour through five centuries of international copyright history, challenging dominant narratives about its purpose, beneficiaries, and impact on the global public good. In an age where laws have become ever more skewed in favor of owners and against users, alternatives such as Open Access are offered that, in the long term, will facilitate a more equitable distribution of knowledge resources.