Honor Among Thieves: How 19th Century American Pirate Publishers Simulated Copyright Protection

Abstract

From 1790 to 1891, the United States prevented foreign authors from obtaining domestic copyright protection, implicitly subsidizing a domestic reprinting industry. With foreign works a “free” and unprotected resource, American publishers created a system of voluntary norms, known as “trade courtesy” to create and enforce psuedo- property rights in uncopyrighted foreign works, simulating the effects of legal copyright protection. This paper analyzes this system using the Bloomington School’s Institutional Analysis and Design (IAD) framework to under- stand its effectiveness, and pitfalls, in managing the commons of unprotected foreign works in 19th Century America.

Publication
Under Review
copyright intellectual property economic history
Ryan Safner
Assistant Professor of Economics