Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law
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Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law

Edited by Isabella Alexander and H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui

There has been an explosion of interest in recent years regarding the origin and of intellectual property law. The study of copyright history, in particular, has grown remarkably in the last twenty years, with a flurry of activity in the last ten. Crucial to this activity has been a burgeoning focus on unpublished primary sources, enabling new and stimulating insights. This Handbook takes stock of the field of copyright history as it stands today, as well as examining potential developments in the future.
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Chapter 13: British colonial and imperial copyright

Catherine Seville


The stories underlying the history of British colonial copyright are often stirring and surprising. They are not all yet very well known. Though much groundwork has been done, it is pleasing to see new work continuing to emerge. Research into the increasingly accessible but also challenging sources repays the effort, helping to build a more detailed picture of some fascinating interactions. These shed considerable light on the history of copyright, which is valuable in itself. Additionally, such work helps to deepen our understanding of histories of publishing and authorship, of trade conditions and trading relationships – and of colonial relationships with the empire more generally. Intellectual property rights are territorial in nature, operating within the boundaries of the state in which they are granted. But once a stable political environment permits international travel and commerce, the question of international protection soon arises. This is certainly true of books, which are easily transported, widely sought, and potentially very profitable. The attempt to protect British authors and publishers from competition ‘beyond the seas’ brought unexpectedly tricky consequences which affected the British empire’s relationship with its colonies in far wider spheres than that affecting simply copyright. Foreign ‘piracy’ of English books was a regular occurrence from the sixteenth century onwards. But as economic markets widened in the nineteenth century, the problem became more pronounced. British books were routinely republished on the Continent, and sold to British travellers and others.

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