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


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.

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