Pirates on the Thames? Intellectual property theft at the University Boat Race

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If you are a British reader then you are probably familiar with the annual University Boat Race, where teams from the county’s top two academic institutions (Cambridge and Oxford) compete over a course of 4.2 miles (6.8km) on the River Thames, starting at Putney and ending at Mortlake.

The race was first staged in 1829 and has been run annually since 1856 (the only breaks being for the two world wars). In that time there have been 82 wins for Cambridge (the light blues) and 80 for Oxford (the dark blues). In 1877 there was a dead heat, and on five occasions one of the boats sank.

The boat race has been part of the London sporting calendar from the early Victorian people and continues to draw large crowds to the river on race days. In fact, it became so enmeshed in London culture that it gave its title to a popular phrase in cockney rhyming slang (‘boat race’ = face).

In 1871 (when Cambridge won by a length) the contest also featured in the daily ‘doings’ of the Police Courts. Just over a week after the race Theresa Conroy was brought before the Mansion House Police court accused of selling ‘pirated photographs of the last Oxford crew’. Detective Sergeant Funnell of the Metropolitan Police accompanied the prisoner and Mr George Lewis prosecuted; Conroy was represented by a Mr Merriman.

The charge laid was that the defendant was involved (with her son) in selling pirated images of the Oxford crew that had been created by her husband, who was sending them to her from his workshop on Jersey in the Channel Islands.

The crime had come to light because the official photographer for the Oxford crew, Mr Henry William Taunt, was surprised that his sales – having started briskly – were now dwindling. He had already sold 500 copies (of six different prints) at 1s a go, in fact he’d sold 14 dozen on the first day of issue. Puzzled and suspicious he himself investigated what was going on and was soon able to purchase five copies of his own work for 5s. The copies were of one particular shot he’d taken (of F.E.H Payne, one of the crew without his hat on), and it appears that the Conroys had stolen, or otherwise managed to get hold of the negative.

When the police looked into the matter they searched Conroy’s home and found over 120 copies there along with copies of the Cambridge crew. Moreover, they found a letter from Mr Conroy to his wife asking if the official photos of the crew ‘were out yet’ and also telling her that in Jersey there were demands for other popular images, such as ‘the King of Prussia (presumably Wilhelm I ) on his knees’.

This was a small but profitable business and demonstrates the popularity of owning such mementos of major events and of popular or significant individuals. The Victorians popularised the photograph and this was also the era with saw the rise of the popular newspaper, including some with illustrations. So in many ways this was a very ‘modern’ form of crime and of course something that is still a problem today. Now it is pirated music and film rather than photos but the effect is the same, in that the creator is deprived of the fruits of his or her labour.

The  magistrate took a dim view of this species of theft or fraud (intellectual property theft as we would understand it). He told the court that Conroy had ‘knowingly and audaciously carried on a trade that had inflicted a serious injury upon other persons, and which was a species of robbery of the worst kind, men of skill and talent being thus deprived of what was due to them’.

In consequence he handed down a hefty financial penalty, which fell directly on Theresa but ultimately on the whole Conroy family. She was fined £5 (or two months imprisonment) for the first copy sold and a further £3 each (or 21 days) for the other copies. Given that Theresa and her son were selling these for 3d each this would have crippled them financially.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 11, 1871]

Today is also my brother Roland’s birthday, he was born 100 years after Theresa appeared in the Mansion House dock and, as someone trained in the law, I’m sure he would appreciate the need to protect the property rights of someone like Mr Taunt. Happy birthday Rol!

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