Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

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Pimps and Ferrets: Copyright and Culture in the United States, 1831-1891

History is supposedly written by the victors, so there has been very little written on the cultural (as opposed to the legal) history of copyright in the U.S. during the 19th century. Now Eric Anderson has gone a long way toward redressing this imbalance with his superb PhD dissertaion, available online, Pimps and Ferrets: Copyright and Culture in the United States, 1831-1891 , which can be found at questioncopyright.org .

Here is the 1.83 MB Pdf file .

This study fills a yawning gap in copyright history, and offers a radically different focus on the development of this institution from the dominant legal perspective. The bookends are the Copyright Act of 1831, and the International Copyright Act of 1891, but there is a good summary of early American copyright history and its British background.

The controversies, schools of thought, and heroes and villains are well portrayed in this thoroughly researched work. The growing scope, duration, and, especially, complexity of copyright law are highlighted. (No prize for guessing which profession hit the jackpot.) Important legal cases and legislative battles are discussed.

But the most interesting part of the book might be the absorbing discussion of the magazine and newspaper debates over copyright, ranging from the Southern Literary Messenger (which he notes is now online) to the Chicago Daily Tribune (which published dozens of articles opposing international copyright) to Benjamin R. Tucker's magazine Liberty (alas mentioned only in a footnote, which surely undervalues the influence of its decade-long debate--and Lysander Spooner is not mentioned at all, but the obscure John Blair Dabney is, rightly, considering the strength of his argument). If you've ever wondered why the American Copyright Club had such little influence, the answer is here. Like most historians of this subject, he discusses Charles Dickens' American campaign for international copyright, but neglects to mention that Dickens was actually paid royalties by three American publishers, if not by the ones that printed unauthorized editions.

Although he doesn't focus on the economics of copyright, he does discuss the economic impact of protection, the effect of rent-seeking, and the prices of copyrighted and uncopyrighted books in both England and America. "Cheap books" was the battle cry in America and rightly so.

In an illuminating passage, he notes "that many academic approaches ... miss how copyright is -- in practice and in ideology -- a mechanism for regulating the market." He points out that this leads to a misunderstanding of the development of copyright and overemphasizes "romanticized authorial propaganda for causal agents of change." This is only one of several historiographical myths he punctures.

The bibliography is excellent, although articles by libertarian writers N. Stephan Kinsella, Roderick Long, and Tom G. Palmer are listed even though they are not cited or discussed in the text or footnotes. Why this is so I have no idea. Maybe someone who knows the ins and outs of academic publishing better than I do can explain this.

As for the meaning of "Pimps and Ferrets," you'll have to read it to find out. I haven't read anything as interesting in a while.


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