Missed this when it first came out, but Bloomberg ran a fantastic report at the beginning of February, highlighting how piracy and fraud were key components to helping America catapult into the industrial revolution
. In fact, there are reasonable arguments to be made that if the US was not
a "pirate" nation, it would not have had the kind of success that it has had as the industrial world leader. We've discussed some of this in the past, and have highlighted how Eric Schiff's research
showed how other countries (the Netherlands and Switzerland) industrialized by explicitly rejecting patents. The US didn't go that far, but it did involve quite frequent copying of the efforts of others and then improving on them, without fear of repercussions.
In its adolescent years, the U.S. was a hotbed of intellectual piracy and technology smuggling, particularly in the textile industry, acquiring both machines and skilled machinists in violation of British export and emigration laws. Only after it had become a mature industrial power did the country vigorously campaign for intellectual-property protection.
This is a point we've made many times as well. Patent and copyright system supporters frequently argue that stronger laws are needed to create incentives for creation and innovation. But, there are a ton of studies that show the actual pattern runs the other way. When you look at the pace of innovation before and after a change to patent laws, or if you do cross-country comparisons at the same time for similar types of economies, you quickly see that those with weaker
laws show more innovation. The ratcheting up of patents is rarely about increasing incentives to innovate. Patents are put in place with the support of incumbents, knowing that it allows them to "exclude" competitors and upstarts. It is not a tool of innovation, but a tool to suppress disruptive innovation. Not having those laws (or having them widely ignored) leads to a situation in which people continually improve
what's out there -- which is how the US economy took over the world during the industrial revolution.
The most candid mission statement in this regard was Alexander Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” submitted to Congress in December 1791. “To procure all such machines as are known in any part of Europe can only require a proper provision and due pains,” Hamilton wrote. “The knowledge of several of the most important of them is already possessed. The preparation of them here is, in most cases, practicable on nearly equal terms.”
Notice that Hamilton wasn’t urging the development of indigenous inventions to compete with Europe but rather the direct procurement of European technologies through “proper provision and due pains” -- meaning, breaking the laws of other countries. As the report acknowledged, most manufacturing nations “prohibit, under severe penalties, the exportation of implements and machines, which they have either invented or improved.” At least part of the “Report on Manufactures” can therefore be read as a manifesto calling for state-sponsored theft and smuggling.
In fact, as the article notes, our own original Patent Act recognized this very fact, by refusing to cover foreign inventions.
Of course, the idea that loose patent and copryight laws can help nations develop economically is not a new idea. Over a decade ago, we were writing about how various officials were admitting that strong IP laws probably did more harm than good
for developing nations. And, yet, the US continues to try to push its extreme maximalism for copyright and patent laws around the globe. Either they are doing this out of ignorance (a real possibility) or
because they actually understand the truth, which is that other countries with IP laws like the ones in the US will see a slow down in their economic development.
Either way, those who insist that the US was founded on the principles of strong respect for "intellectual property" haven't paid that much attention to the actual history of American industrialization.