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Navigating Through A World Of Lawful Piracy

Courtesy photo

Legal historian Robert Spoo is the author of the book Without Copyrights which examines a number of issues related to copyright law in the literary tradition through nearly the first 200 years that this country existed. Spoo believes that some of these practices might better inform the world of intellectual property today.

KMUW’s Jedd Beaudoin spoke with Spoo recently and has more.

When we think of piracy today we think of it as it involving the illegal copying of intellectual properties such as software, music, or film. But there is a different kind of piracy—lawful piracy—which was popular in the American publishing industry for more than a century.

Copyright laws didn’t protect foreign-born authors until well into t

Credit Courtesy photo

  he 1900s. This allowed a flow of works into the U.S. by popular authors such as Charles Dickens. In order to prevent a flooding of the market with lawfully pirated works that would ultimately result in diminished profits, American publishers developed a concept called courtesy. Robert Spoo, author of the book Without Copyrights explains that this was like an agreement among gentlemen.

“Courtesy was a way for publishers to agree among themselves to allow you over there in Philadelphia to have Charles Dickens, allow me over here in New York to have Robert Browning.”

American publishers agreed to not interfere with each other’s business so that everyone could enjoy a piece of the foreign authors’ pie. Sometimes the publishers were able and willing to pay authors for copies of books sold.

“And then, at the same time, because they were able to control, to some extent, the rights in these things—though they were completely manufactured rights—they were able to pay foreign authors and sometimes their publishers something. Some kind of honorarium, even sometimes royalties.”

Although there was not a formal copyright law for much of this nation’s early years, there were understandings that stood in the place of laws for early publishers.

“They did without copyright laws, yet they got along. They did manage—although it was not perfect, it was not a completely foolproof practice, they did get along to some extent without copyright laws. More and more scholars of law and in some cases social sciences and history are looking at areas in which problems are solved not necessarily by laws, by statutes, by judicial pronouncements, but by informal collaborations, norms, practices, just figuring out ways to solve problems without government intervention.”


Although it may be difficult to believe piracy and courtesy actually benefited some foreign authors, especially those whose works were controversial. James Joyce and his classic novel Ulysses—a novel that was at the heart of a famous 1922 obscenity trial--offer scholars a particularly interesting glimpse at how courtesy allowed a work to flourish in the American market.

“His works—and especially Ulysses--were not protected in the United States for a very long time. And it created this gap of copyright protection that had to be filled somehow. And then, finally, in the 1930s, a sort of revisiting of the courtesy principles. The first legitimate, authorized printing of Ulysses in United States in the 1930s was really another now echo of this courtesy practice that we associate with the 19th Century but it was still there in the 1930s and everybody continued beyond that for some years.”

Scholars today might see some elements of past practices that could benefit both those who originate content, members of the larger creative industry and, perhaps, the consumer.

“Copyright law does not have to be a 24-7, wall-to-wall regime that covers absolutely everything in the same way. There may be things within the protection of copyright—say software—that needs less protection than other things. It might even spur productivity if not everything is protected with the same sort of massive amount of maximal copyright protection. So, I think it allows us to think about the crevices, the cracks, the holes, that might exist and might exist without disastrous consequences.”

Dr. Robert Spoo will speak this evening in room 208 of Hubbard Hall on the Wichita State University Campus, beginning at 7.

Click on the link below to read Jedd Beaudoin's review of Robert Spoo's Without Copyrights



To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Follow Jedd Beaudoin on Twitter, @JeddBeaudoin.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.