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Upright Piracy: Understanding the Lack of Copyright for Journalism in Eighteenth-Century Britain
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Upright Piracy
Understanding the Lack of Copyright for Journalism in Eighteenth-Century Britain

When and how did written reports of current events—in other words, journalism—become recognized as a form of literary property? In Great Britain, the 1710 Act of Anne provided authors and booksellers with an exclusive right, during a limited period of time, to print, distribute, and sell their books.1 Yet the act made no mention of newspapers or other periodicals, whose status as literary property remained ambiguous well into the nineteenth century. The Literary Copyright Act of 1842 extended protection to “any Encyclopedia, Review, Magazine, Periodical Work, or Work published in a series of Books or Parts,” but disagreement about the legal status of newspapers, not to mention the individual articles they contained, persisted. In the 1830s and 1850s, when the stamp tax on newspapers was lowered and then abolished, the managers of established London dailies feared a flood of cheap papers that would copy news acquired by them at great expense. They lobbied in vain for a special copyright that would prohibit the unauthorized reprinting of news reports for a certain number of hours after initial publication.2 The Copyright Act of 1911 offered explicit protection for newspapers, but by that time copyright was generally understood to cover only the precise language of articles, not the underlying factual details that many publishers now sought to protect.3

Because the Act of Anne did not mention serial publications, and because most court cases and discussions of literary property in the eighteenth century concerned the reprinting of books, it may be tempting to assume that periodical writings simply were not covered by the statute and that writers, publishers, and readers at the time did not view them as literary property in the same way as books.4 Evidence from the register of the Company of Stationers (the official record of copyright during the eighteenth century) and from the periodicals themselves suggests a more complicated story. Rather than simply assuming that contemporaries applied different standards depending upon the material form of publications (bound books versus single [End Page 34] sheets) or the content of those publications (learned treatises versus accounts of recent events), it is necessary to study what they attempted to claim as literary property and how they attempted to do so.

In his book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Adrian Johns argues convincingly for a broader history of piracy that considers the evolution of moral codes and cultural practices as well as developments in legislation and case law. Johns shows that complaints about piracy predated modern copyright laws, but also that the kinds of activity denounced as piracy have changed over time.5 In the case of eighteenth-century journalism, evidence for contemporary interest in the problem of piracy appears not so much in the formal discussions of literary property usually studied by copyright scholars (petitions to Parliament, court cases, and pamphlets) as in the occasional comments of writers, printers, booksellers, and readers. Such comments tend to be more frequent and more elaborate during periods of increased competition, whether caused by changes in legislation or innovations in publishing practice. This article highlights two such periods: the 1710s, a period of intense competition among the publishers of weekly essay sheets, and the 1730s, when the appearance of monthly magazines led to the first sustained discussion of whether periodical writings could constitute a form of literary property. The debate in the 1730s did not lead to any new legislation, but it did inspire changes in publishing strategy. Moreover, the fact that support for a copyright in journalistic texts was so limited for the rest of the eighteenth century demands explanation. At a time when literary property was the subject of numerous court battles and sustained debate in the press, why did so few people openly discuss a potential copyright in newspaper and magazine writings? What about these writings disqualified them from literary property in eighteenth-century Britain?

In order to better understand the ambiguous status of periodical writings under the Act of Anne, it is important to consider the extent to which this act differed from previous regulations and the...