Was America’s Industrial Revolution Based on Trade Secret Theft?
Is it reasonable to say that the U.S. got an unfair head start on the Industrial Revolution by stealing secrets from Britain? I don’t think so. Industrial espionage had been practiced in Europe throughout the 18th Century, with the British and French particularly active, even using diplomats to get access to valuable commercial information. Moreover, Britain, like some other European countries, frequently granted “patents of importation,” which didn’t require the applicant to be an inventor, if the invention was new within the country’s borders. In this way, governments regularly encouraged people to “steal” ideas from abroad and bring them home. This opportunistic behavior by nations was seen as acceptable only because of the mercantilist attitude of the time, where national interest was all that mattered. It would be another hundred years before international treaties were established to guarantee respect for foreign intellectual property laws, creating the more integrated environment for IP that promotes global commerce today.