Property Pirates

As the U.S. government reproves China for its disrespect of intellectual-property rights, we may do well to remember that our own past record in that area has been less than impeccable.

Relations between the United States and China have been strained of late, partly as a result of China's unwillingness to address the rampant intellectual-property theft of computer software, books, music, movies, and other copyrighted material by Chinese companies. Hoping to pressure China to crack down on such violations, the Bush Administration has now filed complaints with the World Trade Organization urging retaliatory sanctions.

More than a century ago the United States was involved in a somewhat similar dispute with England. In the British-American situation, however, it was the United States' behavior that was problematic. There was not, as yet, an established code of international copyright law. In the absence of such a code royalties and recognition for foreign authors were a matter of honor. At that time, genteel England produced a higher proportion of arts and letters than did frontier America, and the low-cost piracy and distribution of English publications was common.

Three nineteenth-century contributions to The Atlantic Monthly decried this practice and called for the establishment of an international copyright law. In "International Copyright" (October, 1867) James Parton wrote: "For forty years or more we have all been buying our books and reviews at thieves' prices... . . Can any one suppose that the proprieters like to see Blackwood and half a dozen other British magazines sold all over the country at a little more than the cost of paper and printing?"

By March, 1872, The Atlantic could point out in a political commentary that the establishment of an international copyright law would serve U.S. interests because American authors had begun to produce works as worthy of protection as the British. "The rapid increase in the value and importance of American books brings prudence to the aid of morality... . Now that rich freights put out from American as well as English ports, the case becomes different. On every ground it is important that the barbarous system of pillage should cease."

Arthur Sedgwick's February, 1879, "International Copyright by Judicial Decision" emphasized America's own culpability in the international-copyright situation:

Within the past year the old question of copyright has been revived on the other side of the Atlantic, and has engaged the attention of an English commission. . . . Most of their efforts have been directed towards the abolition of the practice of international piracy, which the United States has done so much to encourage, and from which in turn we are now beginning to suffer. It must be confessed that so far as the relations between England and the United States are concerned, these attempts have in the main been productive of little good... . The attitude of the United States on the subject of copyright is more remarkable than that of any other modern country. ... It has ... studiously fostered international piracy, and refused to foreigners the benefits of its copyright law.

Cheating and cutting corners in order to get ahead, and then, once strong, advocating set rules of fair play and chiding other powers for failing to abide by them, may be, as Atlantic correspondent James Fallows has suggested, a standard pattern by which developing nations typically bolster their international economic standing. In "How the World Works" (December, 1993) Fallows pointed to the findings of the economic historian William Lazonick, who studied "the way industrial economies had behaved during the years when they became strongest." Lazonick, Fallows explained, discovered that "these success stories had one common theme... . All had to 'cheat' somehow to succeed... . . America's economic history follows the same pattern... . After it had grown strong, the United States ... began to kid itself about its own history."

As the U.S. government reproves China for its disrespect of intellectual-property rights, we may do well to remember that our own past record in that area has been less than impeccable.