Noah Webster Defines Rent Seeking

My latest paper, Public Choice and Bloomington School Perspectives on Intellectual Property (pdf) written with Eli Dourado), gives capsule summaries of the Virginia school of public choice and the Ostrom’s Bloomington School and then applies some of these ideas to the political economy of intellectual property. Here is one bit on the early history of the copyright law illustrating that Disney’s rewriting of the copyright law to extend its rents is nothing new, rent seekers began to expand on the Constitutional clause almost from the day the ink was dry:

Almost immediately after the first session of Congress, writers began to petition Congress for protection for their works. The Copyright Act of 1790 was meant to fill in the administrative details of how copyright law would work. Importantly, the first draft of the new law appears to have been written not by a member of Congress, but by Noah Webster (Patry 1994)! Webster, cousin to Senator Daniel Webster, was the author of numerous textbooks and, of course, the famous dictionary that still bears his name. His draft of the copyright act, which was not adopted in full, would have extended copyright not just to authors, but also to booksellers and printers. As it was, the 1790 law covered not only books but also maps and charts (a rather broad reading of the Constitution’s writings). Webster was also instrumental in getting the 1831 act passed. The 1831 act doubled protections from 14 to 28 years. Writing to Eliza W. Jones, Webster noted,

[My] business in part was to use my influence to procure an extension of the law for securing copy-rights to authors. . . . By this bill the term of copy-right is secured for 28 years, with the right of renewal . . . for 14 years more. If this should become law, I shall be much benefited.

Webster to Eliza W. Jones, January 10, 1831.


Comments for this post are closed