In the late 1700s, the United Kingdom was the empire that established laws on the globe. The United States was still largely a colony – even if not formally so, it was referred to as such in the civilized world, meaning France and the United Kingdom.
The UK had a strictly protectionist view of trade: all raw materials must come to England, and all luxury goods must be made from those materials while in the UK, to be exported to the rest of the world. Long story short, the UK was where the value was to be created.
Laws were written to lock in this effect. Bringing the ability to refine materials somewhere else, the mere knowledge, was illegal. “Illegal copying”, more precisely.
Let’s look at a particularly horrible criminal from that time, Samuel Slater. In the UK, he was even known as “Slater the Traitor”. His crime was to memorize the drawings of a British textile mill, move to New York, and copy the whole of the British textile mill from memory – something very illegal. For this criminal act, building the so-called Slater Mill, he was hailed as “the father of the American Industrial Revolution” by those who would later displace the dominance of the UK – namely the United States. This copy-criminal also has a whole town named after him.
Copying brings jobs and prosperity. Copying has always brought jobs and prosperity. It is those who don’t want to compete who try to legislate a right to rest on their laurels and outlaw copying. It never works.
We can take a look at the early film industry as well. That industry was bogged down with patent monopolies from one of the worst monopolists through industrial history, Thomas Edison and his Western Electric. He essentially killed off any film company that started in or at New York, where the film industry was based at the time. A few of the nascent film companies – Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, MGM – therefore chose to settle as far from this monopolist as possible, and went across the entire country, to a small unexploited suburb outside of Los Angeles, California, which was known as “Hollywoodland” and had a huge sign to that effect. There, they would be safe from Edison’s patent enforcement, merely through taking out enough distance between themselves and him.
Yes, you read that right – the entire modern film industry was founded on piracy. Which, again, lead to jobs and prosperity.
The heart of the problem is this: those who decide what is “illegal” to copy do so from a basis of not wanting to get outcompeted, and never from any kind of moral high ground. It’s just pure industrial protectionism. Neo-mercantilism, if you prefer. Copying always brings jobs and prosperity. Therefore, voluntarily agreeing to the terms of the incumbent industries, terms which are specifically written to keep everybody else unprosperous, is astoundingly bad business and policy.
I’d happily go as far as to say there is a moral imperative to disobey any laws against copying. History will always put you in the right, as was the case with Samuel Slater, for example.
For a more modern example, you have Japan. When I grew up in the 1980s, Japanese industry was known for cheap knock-off goods. They copied everything shamelessly, and never got quality right. But they knew something that the West didn’t: copying brings prosperity. When you copy well enough, you learn at a staggering pace, and you eventually come out as the R&D leader, the innovation leader, building on that incremental innovation you initially copied. Today, Japan builds the best quality stuff available in any category.
The Japanese knew and understand that it takes three generations of copying and an enormous work discipline to become the best in the world in any industry. Recently, to my huge astonishment, they even overtook the Scottish as masters of whisky. (As I am a very avid fan of Scottish whisky, this was a personal source of confusion for me, even though I know things work this way on a rational level.)
At the personal level, pretty much every good software developer I know learned their craft by copying other people’s code. Copying brings prosperity at the national and the individual levels. Those who would seek to outlaw it, or obey such unjust bans against copying, have no moral high ground whatsoever – and frankly, I think people who voluntarily choose to obey such unjust laws deserve to stay unprosperous, and fall with their incumbent master when that time comes.
Nobody ever took the lead by voluntarily walking behind somebody else, after all. The rest of us copy, share, and innovate, and we wait for nobody who tries to legislate their way to competitiveness.