15 January 2008

Bring on the Ferrets

A dissertation on copyright in 19th-century America may not sound exactly like beach reading, but the fact is that US law in this area affects the rest of the world - not least because of the US's heavy-handed attempts to extend its application around the globe:

With the rise of digital reproduction and the expansion of the Internet, copyright issues have assumed tremendous prominence in contemporary society. Domestically, the United States is awash in copyright-related lawsuits. Internationally, fears of copyright violation strongly influence U.S. foreign policy, especially with China. Hardly a week goes by without some new copyright-related headline in the news. In a globalized world with cheap digital reproduction, copyright matters.

That law has been shaped by the 19th-century experience. And what a century:

The bill in substance provides that […] copyright patents shall be granted to foreigners; they may hold these monopolies for forty-two years; the assigns of foreigners may also obtain copyrights; all postmasters and customs officers throughout the United States are constituted pimps and ferrets for these foreigners; it is made the duty of postmasters to spy out and seize all books going though the mails that infringe the copyrights of foreigners; if an American citizen coming home brings with him a purchased book, it is to be seized on landing unless he can produce the written consent of the man who owns the copyright, signed by two witnesses. Who the said owner may be, in what part of the world he lives, the innocent citizen must find out as best he can, or be despoiled of his property.

The source of this heated prose of pimps and ferrets? The May 19, 1888 issue of Scientific American.

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