“To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense” —Chinese saying

by Stephan Kinsella on February 5, 2013

I came across this fascinating expression from the book To Steal a Book Is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization (1995), by William P. Alford, which I am reading now. The saying is complemented by a quote from Confucius that leads off ch. 2:

The Master [Confucius] said: I transmit rather than create; I believe in and love the Ancients.

Alford challenges the received wisdom that copyright emerged with the invention of printing, since the advent of printing in China did not give rise to something similar to Western-style copyright. In the West, state control of printing, to suppress or regulate dissident thought, gave rise to the Stationer’s Company with its authority to control what books could be printed, and eventually morphed into modern copyright with the Statute of Anne in 1710 (see my How to Slow Economic Progress; and Karl Fogel, The Surprising History of Copyright and The Promise of a Post-Copyright World). State-control of thought transformed into a right of authors to their copyright.

As Alford points out, in China, there were various attempts to regulate printing as well. For example,

Surred by advances in printing technology and a relative rise in literacy, the early years of the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960–1279) saw a marked increase in the production of printed materials by both the Imperial College … and “private” persons, many of whom, in fact, were government officers carrying on sideline activities. concerned about the proliferation of undesirable printed materials, in 1009, the Zhenzong Emperor ordered private printers to submit works they would publish to local officials for prepublication review and registration.

The principal goal of prepublication review was to halt the private reproduction of materials that were either subject to exclusive state control or heterodox. [13]

However, though the penalties for unauthorized publishing or copying were severe (“one hundred blows with a heavy bamboo cane and the destruction of their printing blocks”), there were no explicit penalties for unauthorized reproduction of more mundane works, and the Song dynasty started having difficulty policing “piracy” (14-15). In the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644), the prepublication review system started to lose its vitality.

In the West, what started out as state/church control of thought strangely transformed into a property rights of authors in their works. As Alford notes:

In both the common and civil law worlds, the idea of limiting the unauthorized copying of books was originally prompted not by a belief that writings were the property of their authors, but by a desire to give printers an incentive no to publish heterodox materials. Similarly, the early history of patent law in the West owes far more to the state’s desire to strengthen itself than to an acknowledgement of any inherent property interest of the invento. Thus, for example, the English throne awarded patents to foreigners who introduced new products or processes to the British isles, even if those persons were not themselves responsible for the innovation in question.

But the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed the development of an approach toward intellectual property in Europe that had no counterpart in imperial Chinese history. Simply stated, there developed in England and on the Continent the notion that authors adn inventors had a property interest in their creations that could be defended against the state. Society, growing numbers of Europeans cam to believe, would benefit by providing incentives to engage in such work and disseminate the results. China, by contrast, continued to regulate this area predominantly in terms of how best to maintain the state’s authority.

In other words, both in China and the West, the state first controlled printing to control thought. But in the West, this control over “creations” became interwoven into the private property/private law framework. We might say that the monopolistic and censorial practices of the state corrupted and distorted the fabric of private law in the West. Whereas, in China, there was no corresponding industrialization and a corresponding emergence of the capitalist, free market culture onto which the state’s previous censorship of publications could be  grafted. In a sense, the Chinese system stayed more honest: state control of thought is more clearly wrong and censorship, and is not masqued with the label “property” as it is in the West. China’s deep reverence for its past, as illustrated in the Confucius quote above, also plays a role in why Western notions of an individual right to “own” creative works did not take hold in China or transform the state censorship of works into a more individualized system, as happened in the West. (I am only part way through chapter 2, which explores these issues in greater detail, so these remarks of mine are tentative and somewhat speculative.)

Even though I am just in the first part of the book, I’ve already come across other interesting information, such as n. 12 on p. 128–29, which refers to various studies on whether IP actually does achieve its stated utilitarian goals of spurring inventiveness and creativity. Alford writes:

Certain of these writers deploy extensive statistics in making their cases, although in some instances, such data rest on questionable assumptions … and offer little insight as to whether intellectual property law spawned prosperity or prosperity spawned intellectual property law.

In other words, Alford sees that those arguing empirically for IP might be confusing correlation with causation (see Intellectual Property as a cause of American Prosperity?).


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Aaeru February 5, 2013 at 10:07 am

Or maybe propaganda techniques didn’t develop as quickly and as effectively as it did in the West?

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