Monday Night Lecture Series - Wesleyan University

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Wesleyan University | Center for the Humanities


The Invention of Copyright Piracy in late 19th Century America

The Invention of Copyright Piracy in late 19th Century America

STEVEN WILF • University of Connecticut

FEBRUARY 27 @ 6 P.M. | Daniel Family Commons, Usdan University Center

Why is copying a crime? The criminalization of copyright infringement has become a cornerstone of United States global intellectual property policy. Not only have heightened criminal penalties been added to the 1976 Copyright Act, but a variety of multilateral trade agreements demand that other countries impose criminal sanctions for intellectual property infringement. Yet such anti-piracy provisions have come under attack both in the United States and abroad on both policy and philosophical grounds. To understand the underpinnings of copyright criminalization, it is critical to interrogate its American origins—an 1897 federal statute making unauthorized performance of dramatic works a criminal offense. Theatrical plays were a comparative newcomer to copyright protection. Why did theater pose such a challenge? What other means of enforcing copyright were available—state statutes, contracts, informal associations with extra-official sanctions, shaming scoff-laws—and why did these alternatives falter? The story of the late 19th century invention of criminal sanctions for pirating plays is a tale of failed enforcement. It reveals a striking irony important for our own digital ecosystem: when policing intellectual property through other mechanisms breaks down, states turn to ever-more punitive sanctions—and further erode the fragile legitimacy of copyright’s claims.

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