Thursday, November 29, 2007

Even The First Copyright 'Pirates' Didn't Do Much Harm

Since the original meaning and purpose of intellectual property laws has become so distorted these days, it is quite useful to look back at the history of such things and why they were put in place. That's why we often talk about the debates on intellectual property held by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It's why we bring up things like the problem of patent sharks in the nineteenth century. The more you look, the more you realize that many of the big "problems" people insist are happening today in the intellectual property world really aren't all that different than things that happened in the past. William Patry has been posting a few interesting posts lately on historical views of copyright -- but even more interesting is an article in Toronto's Globe and Mail, where the author discusses the first known case of someone copying another's writings being referred to as a "pirate." It was apparently first used in 1701 to describe people who had copied a poem by Daniel Defoe, called "The True-Born Englishman" in order to sell it themselves. The most interesting part: Defoe actually learned how to take advantage of the situation, rather than whining about it. If only today's copyright holders could learn what Defoe figured out 300 years ago. It is true that Defoe was upset... but not at people copying and making money off of his work. He was upset that they made mistakes in copying his poem. He published a corrected version, noting:
"I should have been concerned at its being printed again and again by pirates, as they call them, and paragraph-men; but would that they do it justice and print it true according to the copy, they are welcome to sell it for a penny if they please."Defoe quickly realized that obscurity was a much bigger threat than "piracy" and by encouraging these "pirates" to sell copies of his work, it built up his own reputation and allowed him to go around the cumbersome publishing process of the time. The rest of Defoe's career was then built off of his name recognition since that poem was so widely distributed, allowing him the ability to make much more money off of future works. In other words, even the original "victim" of "piracy" quickly recognized how it could be used to his advantage, rather than worrying that it was a threat.

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