Thursday, December 3, 2009

The US was also a major IPR pirate not so long ago!

The US just loves to paint developing countries like China and India in dark colours when it comes to respecting IPR, but here are a couple of articles written during the second half of the 19th century, when England was relatively more prolific in the arts and letters than the United States. It transpires that the United States was not much different from what it alleges that China is today. In other words, the US's own record in this regard has hardly been more impeccable.

In those days, there was no established international copyright code. Therefore, payments of royalties and recognition for foreign authors were not legally enforceable but were based on honesty and "courtesy of the trade".

In 1867, one 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?" He chronicles several instances of authors unable to encash the success of their works, and makes out a cogent case for an International Copyright.

Then, in 1879, Arthur Sedgwick wrote, " ... piracy still flourishes as a profitable branch of trade. ... 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"

James Fallows, in a more recent article written in Dec 1993, suggests that cheating and cutting corners to get ahead, and then, once strong, advocating set rules of fair play and chiding other powers for failing to abide by them,  was a standard pattern by which developing nations typically bolstered their international economic standing. We can see this pattern very regularly in the big international debates of the day -- be it agricultural subsidies, or climate change initiatives, or IPR.

These writings, both old and relatively recent, represent contemporary and historical evidence that lay bare enough to show that notwithstanding the high moral ground positions adopted by developed nations in multilateral negotiations, were themselves not much different from the targets of their ire only a century-and-a-quarter ago.

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