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How piracy built the U.S. publishing industry

Americans were once enthusiastic pirates. The company that eventually became HarperCollins made a fortune pirating the work of Charles Dickens and other British authors.

For decades, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to the pirating of intellectual property--and the practice helped some of the country's largest book publishers make their fortunes.

American publishers in 1840 were making huge sums by publishing British books without paying authors. The Brits had done the same thing to the French. Click on the photo to read more about the book. Oxford University Press

I've written a lot lately about the U.S. government's attempt to protect the country's intellectual property against overseas-based online pirates, nowhere more forcefully than in the case of MegaUpload. Last month, the U.S. government indicted Kim DotCom, MegaUpload's founder, on criminal copyright charges. He was arrested in New Zealand and U.S. officials will attempt to bring him to this country to stand trial.

Just so happens that I've also been reading the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning book "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898." The book's authors, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, describe the birth of New York's publishing sector in the 1830s and 1840s, and guess what? The U.S. government's relaxed attitude toward copyright at the time gave publishers a big boost.

According to the book, one of the most lucrative revenue streams for U.S. publishers during this period came from churning out unauthorized copies of British books before their rivals could. Authors didn't get a dime, say Burrows and Wallace. But don't feel too bad for the British publishers--they'd done exactly the same to French authors.

From the book:

Some (U.S. publishers) sent agents to England with orders to grab volumes from bookstalls... and ship them west by fast packet. Copy was then rushed from the dock to the composing room, presses run night and day, and books hurried to the stores or hawked in the streets like hot corn.

According to Burrows and Wallace, one of the most successful pirates was the company that eventually became HarperCollins, now owned by News Corp.

It wasn't as if the U.S. government had no copyright laws at the time. The country put copyright protections on the books in 1787. But those only covered U.S. works. The government simply "refused as yet to recognize foreign copyrights," according to the authors of "Gotham."

In January 1842, Charles Dickens visited New York, a city in love with the British author. His stories illustrated the evils of poverty and class divisions and these resonated with a New York population that included large numbers of immigrants who lived in squalor.

Dickens visited this country "partly for sightseeing, partly in a fruitless attempt to promote an international copyright law that would require Americans to pay for the pleasure of reading him," according to "Gotham." How did he fare?

Not well. When he wrote about his New York trip, the piece was promptly pirated by U.S. publishers. The government didn't agree to respect international copyright laws for another 40 years.

There's not much significance to all this other than to show that countries with little intellectual property to protect often have little interest in copyright. This may help explain why the United States is so focused on blocking suspected overseas pirate sites.