Abstract: Protecting Private Interests under the Shadow of the Law: Shanghai Booksellers' ''Copyright'' Regime, 1905-1949

Fei-Hsien Wang


In 1905, Chinese booksellers in Shanghai revived their guild to deal with an increasingly acute problem in the book trade—piracy; they transformed this early modern establishment from a mutual-aid organization into a quasi-legal institution aiming to regulate and protect what they believed to be ''copyright.'' Drawing from the rich and underused archives, I explore in this paper how the Shanghai Booksellers' Guild, a private trade organization with no legitimate jurisdiction or official authorization, established and enforced its ''copyright'' regime when the Chinese central state and its laws existed more in name than reality. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Guild registered new titles and old printing blocks, adjudicated ownership disputes, punished those who pirated its members' books, and later even operated a private police force hunting pirates nationwide. In the absence of an evenly effective state, the Guild operated its private ''copyright'' regime not according to the state's formal copyright law, but according to Shanghai booksellers' collective civility, morality, customs, and their own conceptions of publication ownership.