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

from the learn-your-history dept

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.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    4-80-sicks, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 8:52am

    I expect that somebody would be compelled to respond that today, obscurity is not a concern for Hollywood, et al. Let me preemptively reply that if one is a critical thinker, it should be clear that the point is not that the phenomenon of piracy can be answered the same way every time, but that there is always or nearly always a way to turn it to your advantage other than lawsuits and litigation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Dalane, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 9:01am

    Still a problem

    Actually obscurity is a major problem for writers today. Getting their name out there is the most difficult aspect. You can write drivel the rest of your life once people know who you are and make money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    WarOtter (profile), Nov 28th, 2007 @ 9:07am

    Re: Still a problem

    See: Stephen King (I do like many of his books but I also think many of his books are a bit cliched)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Shun, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 10:54am

    The problem is not copyright, per se

    You know, back in the day, the idea of copyright was that the author of the work had the right to copy and distribute the work. In other words, no government had the power to restrict printing of that work. So the Federalist Papers came along, and eventually led to the Declaration of Independence.

    The Bible was copied in the same way (although we may dispute how well the original works were translated).

    Now all of a sudden (OK, not so suddenly, but with the internet, this idea seems quaint) copyright becomes the right of certain parties to control the distribution and production of work. Who benefits from this apparatus of control?

    Copyright should not be used to enforce a monopolistic and obsolete model of distribution. As to the question of piracy...if your ideas are so hackneyed and lame that people aren't willing to pay the price of a good book to reward you, then maybe you should be out of the book writing business.

    Good authors should get rewarded. The fact that the present system props up authors trading on their past achievements and buries good up-and-coming authors says a lot about it: again, we're dealing with gatekeepers, and not the true producers of literary culture.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    TSO, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 10:56am

    Well, so it is true that in the good ol' days "copyright" meant "copied all right"? =^.^=

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Wolfger, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 11:09am


    It's also worth mentioning that while obscurity is not a problem for Hollywood, neither does "Hollywood" actually create anything. You know the names of the works rather well... say, "Pirates of the Caribbean", for example... but do you know who *wrote* it? There's only a handful of people outside the studio (and the writer's family) who do, though his (or her) name appears buried somewhere in the credits. Obscurity is still a huge problem for the actual creators of content. That's why it's Hollywood, and not the creators, so actively pursuing pirates.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Kevin, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 11:18am

    Author vs. Distributor

    While I have no doubt that piracy can work like "free advertising" for an author, software company, or other content creator, it doesn't do nearly as much for a distributor of content like a movie studio or record label. It might increase demand for the creator's future product, which might translate into more revenue for the distributor if the distributor gets to distribute that future product, but otherwise it's not a help.

    For example, if a new band's album is widely copied/pirated, the band will benefit from increased exposure. They'll probably sell more concert tickets, t-shirts, posters, etc. Their future albums may end up selling more copies. But their record label isn't likely to benefit from any of the ancillary businesses, and they'll only benefit from higher future album sales if the band doesn't switch to another label. So from that standpoint the record label would be anti-piracy.

    Of course, the ironic part of it is that while Record Label #1 may lose out of the band switches labels, the RIAA represents both Record Label #1 and Record Label #2. So while the individual labels might be hurt, collectively the industry probably benefits. But the labels have formed the RIAA as a collective not to serve the collective interests of the industry, but as a collective effort to serve multiple individual interests.

    It's weird, but it probably goes a long way towards explaining why they don't seem to get it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 1:39pm

    Re: Author vs. Distributor

    So in other words, they're all wacko.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 3:34pm

    Re: Author vs. Distributor

    Labels aren't just distributors of the audio recordings, they are promoters of the artist, and thus have their thumb firmly and clearly in the ancillary business pie. Why on earth do you think a concert ticket is $100 for nosebleed seats, the parking spot to leave your car in while you attend that concert is $30, the T-shirt you buy to prove you were there is $45, and the beer you spilled while dancing was $8.50? It's because everyone (including the label) is getting a cut of the proceeds.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 28th, 2007 @ 4:44pm

    the bible

    this should be in the bible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Kev Mcveigh, Nov 29th, 2007 @ 9:13pm

    ANonymous Coward at #9:
    I've attended upwards of twenty concerts this year at an average price of about $20 maybe less. I was close enough to the front every time, never paid once to park, and had a great time. These included major label internationally successful acts and small independent acts.
    If you choose to pay $100 for a ticket the promoters will gladly take your money, I chose not to.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Wizard Prang, Dec 3rd, 2007 @ 9:06am

    So what you are saying is...

    ...that current copyright laws benefit mainly the middleman, and the middlemen that represent those middlemen, and not the creators of the works.

    That's a surprise...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    PRMan, Apr 2nd, 2008 @ 1:05pm

    >>The Bible was copied in the same way (although we may dispute how well the original works were translated).

    Really? We have a Greek New Testament text today that almost no scholar disputes as being over 99.98% accurate. All modern translations (1950 and later) take advantage of this and translate VERY accurately.

    I'm not really sure what the reason for the statement was. Yeah, the King James Version used a really late Greek text (although nobody realized such things were even possible at the time), but the KJV is a very accurate translation of it and was printed very accurately as well. And the difference between the Greek texts can be easily seen by comparing, say, the KJV and NIV.

    I'm not really sure what you're trying to get at with the statement, other than to libel the Bible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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