It is now a familiar point that positive law accounts for only part of the systems that regulate human behavior. Robert Ellickson’s cornerstone treatise, Order Without Law, showed how closely-knit groups construct norm-based rule structures that govern behavior more efficiently than state-created law. In the past decade or so, scholars have investigated a number of areas in which individuals engaged in creative production similarly opt for norm-based systems in lieu of copyright or trademark law.
Professor Robert Spoo’s recent article, Courtesy Paratexts: Informal Publishing Norms and the Copyright Vacuum in Nineteenth-Century America, represents a fascinating and important contribution to this growing literature. Spoo’s article harkens back to the mid- and late 1800s, a time when foreign authors received no copyright protection in the United States. In the absence of formal legal protection for foreign authors’ works, domestic publishers created a series of agreements with each other that the first house to print copies of a foreign author’s novel would be able to do so without competition—even in the absence of enforceable copyright law. These informal agreements were expressed and furthered to a large extent by courtesy paratexts: Brief written passages in the front matter of a book in which the book’s author would affirm that the publisher was acting within the courtesy of the trade to print their work, and exhorting readers to buy only authorized editions to assure the author and publisher alike their fair remuneration.