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Piracy and Copyright Tricentennial · Wednesday April 29, 2009 by Crosbie Fitch

According to the OED one of the first uses of the term ‘pirate’ to describe unauthorised reproduction of a published work was penned by Daniel Defoe:

1703 D. Defoe True-born Englishman in True Collect. I. Expan. Pref. sig. B3v, Its being Printed again and again by Pyrates.

It’s almost as if by such selective quotation the OED prefers people to interpret Defoe’s sentiments as “Help! The bastards are pirating my poem! Call the navy!” But, then how could the OED possibly be biased in support of copyright and against piracy?

In 1701 Daniel Defoe published The True-Born Englishman, and then in 1703 in a later edition included an explanatory preface:

As to Answers, Banters, True-English Billinsgate, I expect them till no body will buy, and then the Shop will be shut. Had I wrote it for the Gain of the Press, I should have been concern’d at its being Printed again and again, by Pyrates, as they call them, and Paragraph-Men: But would they but do it Justice, and print it True, according to the Copy, they are welcome to sell it for a Penny, if they please.

So, rather than making a furious complaint, Defoe appears to be saying “If my motive in writing this was to sell it to a printer in exchange for their ‘protected’ royalty, I would have been upset at any unauthorised reproduction. Instead, people are welcome to sell it for a penny a copy1, as long as those copies are fair.”

It sounds like Defoe had a good grasp of a more principled approach to publication. Perhaps we might even deduce that Defoe was the first author to welcome pirates as good for publicity and promotion?

He goes on to recognise that commerce is the objective of pirates, and supposes that if no-one buys then no-one will write. But he then sardonically suggests that this would mean that none of his detractors would publish their response, given no money in it – insinuating his detractors put money before principle.

Defoe therefore effectively recognises that for some purposes some people will write irrespective of reward (and that for others they will not).

So, with the Statute of Anne in 1709, we have roughly three centuries of piracy and copyright behind us. Hopefully, that’s the way it will remain.

_______________________________

1 This seems serendipitously resonant with my pet project 1p2U (in development) to enable people to pay bloggers a penny for each article they publish (which can then be philanthropically pirated without shame or fear of prosecution).

David said 1870 days ago :

In other contexts Defoe was strongly opposed to literary piracy, and in fact he was one of the promoters behind the Statute of Anne. The True-Born Englishman was a piece of political propaganda, and for this purpose Defoe might well say, if only rhetorically, that he was primarily interested in getting his message to the widest possible audience.

Crosbie Fitch said 1870 days ago :

Yes David, Defoe (like many, many others) was also seduced by the power to prohibit unauthorised copies, even though in some cases, as in this one, he recognised the benefits of ‘piracy’ or the unrestrained proliferation of a free press (albeit fair and true).

Further reading: Commentary on: Defoe’s Essay on the Press, United Kingdom 1704



 

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