Commentary on:
Calico Printers' Act (1787)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

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Identifier: uk_1787

 

Commentary on the Calico Printers' Act 1787

Ronan Deazley

School of Law, University of Birmingham, UK

 

Please cite as:
Deazley, R. (2008) ‘Commentary on the Calico Printers' Act 1787', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org

 

1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. The Calico Printers petition Parliament

4. Counter-petitions from the North

5. Copyright and the Textile Industry

6. References

 

 

1. Full title

An Act for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing and printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes, and Muslins, by vesting the Properties thereof, in the Designers, Printers and Proprietors, for a limited time, 1787, 27 Geo.III, c.38 (1787)

 

2. Abstract

Legislation conferred exclusive rights lasting two months on those first printing 'new and original' patterns on linens, cottons, calicoes and muslins.

 

The commentary describes the background to the Act, the challenge which the Northern cotton and printing industry presented to those printing fashionable cottons and calicoes in London, as well as the significance of the cotton industry to the British economy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Against this backdrop, the commentary also explores why it was that the protection provided by the legislature was limited to two months only, by comparison with the more generous copyright terms provided by the Statute of Anne 1710 (uk_1710) and the Engravers' Acts (uk_1735; uk_1766; uk_1777).

 

3. The Calico Printers petition Parliament

 

"The art of the calico printer ... not only comprehends that of the dyer, which requires all the aid of chemical science, but also that of the artist, for the designing of tasteful and elegant patterns, that of the engraver, for transferring those patterns to the metal used to impress them on the cloth, and that of the mechanician, for the various mechanical processes of engraving and printing. Taste, chemistry, and mechanics have been called the three legs of calico printing."[1]

On 15 March 1787 a petition was received in the House of Commons from various "Callicoe Printers, Artists, Designers of Drawings, Engravers and other Proprietors of original Patterns for printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes, and Muslins" complaining of the fact that they had "with great industry and expence, severally invented, designed, or engraved, divers sets of new and original patterns ... in hopes to have reaped the benefit of such their own labours, and the credit thereof". They continued however that:

"[D]ivers callicoe printers, and other persons, to save themselves the expence of original designs, have of late too frequently taken the liberty of the copyright, printing and publishing, great quantities of base and mean copies and imitations thereof, to the great detriment of the petitioners and other artists, and to the discouragement of the said arts and manufacture."[2]

Just over fifty years previously the Commons had received a similar petition, again from a group of artists and engravers complaining that when they had "finish'd a Design, which has taken them up Time, and Pains, and Thought in the Execution, and procured at a considerable Expence Engravings, or any other Sort of Prints from their Designs", their original designs were reproduced by "Copyers" who were "no better than the Lowest of Robbers".[3] That earlier petition resulted in the passing of the Engravers' Copyright Act 1735,[4] which legislation obviously provided a model for the calico printers' petition. Indeed, to remedy their situation, they asked that leave be given to bring in a bill for "preventing such frauds and abuses for the future, and for securing the properties of the petitioners for a limited time, in the same manner, as the laws now in being have preserved the properties of authors of books, and the inventors and engravers of historical and other prints".[5] Like the engravers before them, the calico printers' petition would result in legislation protecting their interests, albeit of a different kind.[6]

 

The claims of the petitioners were ordered to be examined by a committee which reported to the Commons on 27 March. The main witness called in support of the petition was William Kilburn (1745-1818) an Irish engraver and printer of some talent who owned and managed a calico printing factory at Wallington, in Surrey.[7] Kilburn complained that within the last three years he had lost around £1000 worth of investment "owing to Imitations", having produced an original pattern of his own that had been copied by the printworks established by Robert Peel (1750-1830), at Bury in Lancashire. Peel was then selling these works in London, at a considerably cheaper price, within ten days of the original having been first published. The cheaper price of the copies, he explained, was due to the fact that the copiers "pay nothing for the designs", "execute them in a much inferior style", and use inferior dyes "which will not wash". Ralph Yates, a London warehouseman who dealt in popular prints, and who had sold the Lancashire copy of Kilburn's design, admitted before the committee that it was a general practice within the trade to reproduce original patterns as soon as they came out, adding that, while the printers in the country generally copied the patterns of the London firms, the reverse situation rarely if ever occurred.[8] Following the report it was ordered that leave be given to bring in a Bill for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing and printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes, and Muslins, by vesting the Properties thereof in the Designers, Printers, and Proprietors, for a limited Time.[9]

 

4. Counter-petitions from the North

After the first reading of the bill,[10] several petitions were received from manufacturers and printers based in Carlisle and Aberdeen,[11] as well as from Lancashire,[12] all protesting against the proposed legislation. The petitioners warned that enacting the law would "not only destroy a great part of the cotton manufacture carried on in Great Britain" which trade raised "considerable revenue to government", but that the legislation was also flawed in failing to take into account important features of the existing industry. For one thing, they suggested, the printers in London and those in the country catered for two very different markets. Whereas those in London were "chiefly employed in printing the foreign muslins and calicoes adapted for the consumption of people of fashion", those in the country were "extensively concerned in manufacturing and printing calicoes and cotton goods" for the bottom end of the market.[13] This certainly seemed to be the case. The previous year, for example, Robert Peel had spoken to a meeting of the Manchester printers of the fact that three out of four of printed textiles produced in Britain were indeed "consumed by the lower class of people".[14] The petitioners also spoke to the practical difficulties in telling one original design from another when "it frequently happens in small patterns, where there is little room for variety, that the designs of two persons bear so near a resemblance to each other, that the difference can scarcely be distinguished". Under such circumstances, they suggested, no precaution could be taken to "protect an innocent man from ruin". Moreover, they continued, textile design and manufacturing was essentially an appropriative and mimetic enterprise.[15] Designers in London, they pointed out, "not only draw the same design several times" but likewise "copy from cloth, and sell them to the callicoe printers as originals". Similarly, those concerned "in every other fancy trade are at full liberty, and make it a constant practice, to copy and imitate the fashions". Deprived of that freedom to copy fashionable trends, then they too would "be attended with the same fatal consequence that now threatens those people employed in the callicoe manufacture and printing business".[16]

 

While the counter-petitions from the provinces did not prevent the proposed legislation coming into force it has been suggested by Sherman and Bently that their efforts did influence the content of the Act in two important respects.[17] In the first place, by comparison with the fourteen year protection granted to the engravers of prints in 1735[18] (which had since been extended to twenty-eight years[19]), the 1787 Act provided every person "who shall invent, design, and print ... any new and original Pattern or Patterns for printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes, or Muslins" with the right to print and reprint the same for the period of two months only.[20] Secondly, the lifespan of the Act itself was time-limited, designed to remain in force for only "one year, and from thence to the end of the then next session of Parliament".[21] To these significant differences might be added one further point of comparison with the earlier legislation. Whereas the Engravers Act prevented the reproduction of a protected work "in the whole or in part, by varying, adding to, or diminishing from, the main design", the 1787 statute only ensured protection for a "new and original pattern" in its entirety. This naturally provided the opportunity for the northern printers to continue to imitate protected designs without infringing against the legislation.[22] As Chapman and Chassange note, for example, following the passing of the Act, "the Peels' most characteristic response to fashion movements was to adapt patterns the partners had seen in Manchester or London ... [t]he most frequent instruction [being] to copy particular samples with variations of ‘grounds' and motifs, or of the direction, emphasis or size of the pattern imposed on the ‘ground'".[23]

 

Whether Sherman and Bently are correct to suggest that the protests from the north fundamentally affected the substance of the legislation remains a moot point. Certainly amendments were made to the bill during its passage through the Commons;[24] however, given that no copy of the bill appears to exist as it was first introduced to the House,[25] we cannot be sure of the nature of the amendments made thereto. They may have related to the term of copyright protection and the duration of the life of the bill, but equally they may not. While Kilburn and his fellow petitioners had requested legislation similar to those laws protecting the "authors of books, and the inventors and engravers of historical and other prints", in practice they may not have needed (or indeed asked for) a protection that would last beyond a fashionable season.[26] Certainly, the northern petitioners' argument that it would be "unsafe to print any goods at a distance from the metropolis, as no country printer can be assured that the patterns sent down from London are Originals",[27] suggests that the protection proposed under the first draft of the bill was in the order of months rather than years.[28]

 

5. Copyright and the Textile Industry

And yet the question remains as to why, in principle, those who designed and printed calicos should be treated any differently from those claiming protection under the Engravers Acts or indeed under the Statute of Anne? One printer, Augustus Applegarth, put this very point to the Select Committee on Copyright in Designs in 1840:

"My own idea is that the copyright of a pattern ought to be the same as the copyright of a book; I cannot see any difference between the two things. If I was to produce a beautiful engraving, and publish it as a print, I should have a long term of copyright; but if I print it on cloth, I only get three months' copyright. ... I cannot see why thought is to be protected in one case and not in the other."[29]

Although the Select Committee did recommend that it would be "expedient to extend Copyright of Designs",[30] one of the main concerns of the committee, evident throughout the minutes of evidence, was the impact which even a short extension of term might have upon the industry at large. As one committee member put it to Applegarth: "Is there not a hazard that the great commercial interests of the country might be affected by making this change?"[31] The nature of the link between the commercial interests of the country and the health of the textile industry was not overstated.

 

In the early 1800s textiles accounted for about 60 per cent of the British export market; by the 1840s that figure had risen to over 70 per cent.[32] The principles of mass production and competitive spending which drove the Industrial Revolution were in many respects incubated within the textile industry in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Within that broader industry, calico printing had established itself as an area of considerable importance since its introduction into Britain at the end of the seventeenth century. Just five years before the 1787 legislation, for example, the government had passed An Act to prevent the seducing of artificers or workmen employed in printing calicoes, cottons, muslins, and linens, or in making or preparing blocks, plates or other implements used in that manufactory, to go to parts beyond the seas; and to prohibit the exporting to foreign parts of any such blocks, plates or other implements,[33] and in 1783 had provided for a substantial bounty to be given on the export of any printed or painted calicos and cottons.[34] In 1785 Thomas Bell's (fl. 1783-1784) cylinder printing machine was first introduced, and would in time revolutionise the production capacity of the calico printers.[35] In 1750 the output of printed calico in Britain was approximately 54,000 pieces (each of 30 yards). In 1796 that figure had risen to 1,000,000 pieces, then to 7,000,000 in 1821, and again to about 16,000,000 (or about 480 million yards) by 1840.[36] Whereas in 1760 Manchester only had one calico printing firm in 1760, by the time the 1787 Act was passed, it had forty-five.[37]

 

That the legislature regarded calico printing as an industry of mass production, and one that was germane to the economic health of the nation, may then explain why the artists and engravers who made the designs for the fabrics were accorded a much lesser form of copyright protection than those who produced paper based prints. Calls for protection within a mass market required a market specific response. In this regard, it is interesting to note a significant difference in the rationales set out in the preambles to the engravers' legislation and the Calico Printers Act. The 1735 Act, for example, sought to remedy the "very great prejudice and detriment" experienced by those individuals who "by their own genius, industry, pains, and expence, invented and engraved [prints] in hopes to have reaped the sole benefit of their labours".[38] The 1787 legislation, by contrast, noted simply that "it may be expedient, for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing original Patterns for printing Linens, Callicoes, Cottons and Muslins, to vest the Property in the Designers, printers or proprietors" of the same.[39] The former focussed squarely on the individual; the latter on the industry at large.

 

6. References

Government papers and legislation

Engravers' Copyright Act, 1735, 8 Geo.II, c.13

Engravers' Copyright Act, 1766, 7 Geo.III, c.38

An Act to prevent the seducing of artificers or workmen employed in printing calicoes, cottons, muslins, and linens, or in making or preparing blocks, plates or other implements used in that manufactory, to go to parts beyond the seas; and to prohibit the exporting to foreign parts of any such blocks, plates or other implements, 1782, Geo.III, c.60

Calico Printers' Act, 1787, 27 Geo.III, c.38

An Act for granting a bounty upon the exportation of British and Irish buckrams and tillettings, British and Irish linens, British calicoes and cottons, or cotton mixed with linen, printer, painted, stained, or dyed, in Great Britain, 1783, Geo.III, c.21

Models and Busts Act, 1798, 38 Geo.III, c.71

Report from the Select Committee on Copyright of Designs (1840) Paper No.442, vi, 1

Books and articles

Adams, J.N., and Averley, G., with Robinson, F.J.G., A Bibliography of Eighteenth Century Legal Literature: a subject and author catalogue of law treatises and all law related literature held in the main legal collections in England (Newcastle upon Tyne: Avero, 1982)

Baines, E., History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (London: Fisher & Co., 1835). Reprinted in The Cotton Industry: Its Growth and Impact, 1600-1935, 9 vols. Edited by Chapman, S. (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999), Vol.2.

Chapman, S., and Chassange, S., European Textile Printers in the Eighteenth Century: a Study of Peel and Oberkamps (London: Heinemann Educational, 1981)

Chapman, S.D., "Kilburn, William (1745-1818)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), online ed., 2005, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15522 [accessed 1 May 2007]

Chassange, S., "Calico Printing in Europe before 1780". In The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. Edited by Jenkins, D. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 513-527

Evans, E.J., The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870, 2nd ed. (Essex: Pearson Education, 1996)

Lemire, B., "Fashioning Cottons: Asian Trade, Domestic Industry and Conusmer Demand, 1660-1780". In The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. Edited by Jenkins, D. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 493-512

Longfield, A.K., "William Kilburn and the earliest Copyright Acts for Cotton Printing Designs", Burlington Magazine, 95 (1953): 230-33

O'Brien, C., The Callico Printers Assistant; from the first operation of designing patterns, to the delivery of work for sale, 2 vols (London: n.p., 1789-92)

Sherman, B., and Bently, L., The Making of Modern Intellectual Property Law: the British Experience, 1760-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Turnbull, G., A History of the Calico Printing Industry of Great Britain (Altrincham: John Sherratt & Son, 1951)


[1] E. Baines, History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (London: Fisher & Co., 1835), reprinted in S. Chapman, ed., The Cotton Industry: Its Growth and Impact, 1600-1935 (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999), 254.

[2] Journal of the House of Commons (CJ), 42: 546.

[3] The Case of Designers, Engravers, Etchers, &c., Stated in a Letter to a Member of Parliament, 1735, Lincoln's Inn Library, M.P.102, Fol.125.

[4] Engravers' Copyright Act, 1735, 8 Geo.II, c.13; see: uk_1735.

[5] CJ, 42: 546.

[6] On the history of calico printing in Britain see: G. Turnbull, A History of the Calico Printing Industry of Great Britain (Altrincham: John Sherratt & Son, 1951); S. Chassange, "Calico Printing in Europe before 1780", in D. Jenkins, ed., The Cambridge History of Western Textiles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 513-527. About the impact of the introduction of East Indian calicos and chintzes in late seventeenth century Britain, Lemire writes: "East Indian textiles possessed distinctive features. First and foremost, the cottons were all washable and the dyes were generally colour-fast; these two factors alone represented a huge advantage over many fabrics of European manufacture. But this was not the only advantage enjoyed by Asian fabrics. These imports came in a diverse assortment of qualities and prices. Thus this miscellany of materials attracted consumers with pounds or pennies to spend ... [They] were among the new colonial consumer products which redefined material expectations and standards of comfort"; B. Lemire, "Fashioning Cottons: Asian Trade, Domestic Industry and Consumer Demand, 1660-1780", in Jenkins, ed., 493-512, (494). Elsewhere she continues that, with the introduction of Indian calicos, "[a] momentous shift in the physical property of dress occurred ... The substance of dress was permanently altered; so too was the content and comfort of households. More dramatic still was the visual change. Painted and printed Indian fabrics recast the material idiom of everyday life. To the ubiquitous monotony of drab coloured coats, jackets and gowns were added a constant stream of vivid printed garments"; ibid., 511.

[7] S.D. Chapman, "Kilburn, William (1745-1818)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), online ed., 2005, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/15522 [accessed 1 May 2007]; A.K. Longfield, "William Kilburn and the earliest Copyright Acts for Cotton Printing Designs", Burlington Magazine, 95 (1953): 230-33.

[8] CJ, 42: 584-85.

[9] Ibid, 585.

[10] CJ, 42: 609 (28 March).

[11] CJ, 42: 638 (18 April).

[12] CJ, 42: 659, 663 (24, 25 April).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Quoted in S. Chapman and S. Chassange, European Textile Printers in the Eighteenth Century: a Study of Peel and Oberkamps (London: Heinemann Educational, 1981), 78. As Chapman and Chassange note, with the movement of the textile industry from London into the provinces in the mid-eighteenth century, "[t]he luxury end of the industry remained in the metropolis while the production of more popular prints shifted to the centre of mass-production [Lancashire]"; ibid., 10.

[15] When the investigating committee interviewed William Kilburn they engaged him in some discussion as to the creative process and the nature of original design. Having asked him whether he had ever taken patterns "from foreign manufacturers" even Kilburn admitted that he had "frequently taken hints from them to improve his own manufacture" but continued that "he had never considered such patterns as original"; CJ, 42: 585.

[16] CJ, 42: 663. Charles O'Brien wrote in 1792 about the nature of invention and originality within the calico industry in the following manner: "As for invention, strictly speaking, it is not here offered to say what it is, much less how to describe it; there is a mutation of stile or taste, to be sure, but nothing new, for novelty is only a name for an old effect or appearance revived with a little alteration, and (making a metaphysical excursion) if the question were asked, what is original? an answer could not be easily obtained sufficient to satisfy some enquirers ... and if the proudest designer in the printing or any other business, would be candid, he would confess there is not near so much invention in what he produces, as he desires the world to give him credit for ... Besides, if it be considered what a number of Designers are always at work, and how many thousand patterns are produced in a year, but how few of them remarkable for novelty, it must still seem more clearly that there is little of striking out of the beaten path, and much less originality than might be expected"; Charles O'Brien, The Callico Printers Assistant; from the first operation of designing patterns, to the delivery of work for sale, 2 vols. (London: 1789-92), vol.1. About Kilburn in particular, however, O'Brien observed that he was one of the few "who boldly ventures ... to strike into unbeaten tracks, and consequently prevents that languor in exertion and sickliness of complexion which otherwise would be the case"; ibid., vol.2.

[17] Sherman and Bently write: "The London calico printers objected to their patterns being copied by the new cotton factories of the north. The latter group opposed the pleas for protection to such effect that the duration of protection granted by Parliament was confined to two months and also that the Act was only passed as a temporary measure"; B. Sherman and L. Bently, The Making of Modern Intellectual Property Law: the British Experience, 1760-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 63, n.3.

[18] Engravers' Copyright Act, 1735, s.1.

[19] Engravers' Copyright Act, 1766, 7 Geo.III, c.38, s.7.

[20] s.1.

[21] s.3.

[22] Whether or not this was a deliberate response to the northern petitioners' comments as to the imitative nature of textile design and manufacture, and the problems that over-protection might create within the industry can only be a matter for conjecture. It is interesting to note however that when the Models and Busts Act, 1798, 38 Geo.III, c.71, was passed, which legislation similarly drew upon the existing Engravers' Acts, it did make it an offence to copy the protected work either in its entirety or "by adding or diminishing from" the same; Models and Busts Act, 1798, s.2.

[23] Chapman and Chassange, 83-84.

[24] CJ, 42: 730, 738. The bill passed through the House of Lords without amendment; CJ, 42: 784.

[25] See for example J.N. Adams and G. Averley, with F.J.G. Robinson, A Bibliography of Eighteenth Century Legal Literature: a subject and author catalogue of law treatises and all law related literature held in the main legal collections in England (Newcastle upon Tyne: Avero, 1982), which doesn't list any extant materials relating to the 1787 Bill.

[26] When the Report from the Select Committee on Copyright of Designs was published in 1840 it contained evidence from a number of calico printers advocating an extension to the copyright term. By and large they considered that, based upon the nature of the domestic and overseas market, a period of 12 months would provide sufficient protection for the trade. Indeed, most considered that a six month protection would be sufficient for the domestic market alone. Report from the Select Committee on Copyright of Designs, Paper No.442, vi, 1, 15-16, 25, 149, 185, 438.

[27] CJ, 42: 663.

[28] About this aspect of their argument Turnbull writes: "No doubt in the early period when transport facilities were still limited, the objection would be quite genuine, but with the rapid improvement in these services, the objection became unfounded"; Turnbull, 135. By the same token, when the metropolitan printers lobbied Parliament for a new Act in 1794, again led by William Kilburn, they also sought an extension to the duration of protection arguing that "if the term of the property vested in the petitioners was extended to the term of three months ... it would be the means of more effectually securing the property of the petitioners" (CJ, 49: 232); that they only sought to extend the term by one month is perhaps indicative of what they had considered a necessary or appropriate term seven years previously.

[29] Report from the Select Committee on Copyright of Designs, 163; see also, ibid., 174-75.

[30] Ibid., iii.

[31] Ibid., 175.

[32] E.J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870, 2nd ed. (Essex: Pearson Education, 1996), 110, 113.

[33] An Act to prevent the seducing of artificers or workmen employed in printing calicoes, cottons, muslins, and linens, or in making or preparing blocks, plates or other implements used in that manufactory, to go to parts beyond the seas; and to prohibit the exporting to foreign parts of any such blocks, plates or other implements, 1782, Geo.III, c.60. Nor was this industrial paternalism particular to Britain: "The majority of other European states [at this time] adopted protectionist policies with regard to calico printing, similar to that of the English Parliament, in order to favour the establishment of the new industry in their own country ... All in all, by around 1780 there was hardly a European country without, at least in its capital, one or more calico-printing works created by the transfer of technology. The role of the state was always a determining element in these businesses, in according monopoly rights, royal warrants or financial advantages and protectionist customs regulations"; Chassange, "Calico Printing in Europe", 525-26.

[34] An Act for granting a bounty upon the exportation of British and Irish buckrams and tillettings, British and Irish linens, British calicoes and cottons, or cotton mixed with linen, printer, painted, stained, or dyed, in Great Britain, 1783, Geo.III, c.21.

[35] See in general: Turnbull, 50-53, 81-89; Chapman and Chassange, 20-21. About advantages of cylinder printing machine over the more traditional methods of calico printing, Baines wrote: "The saving of labour, therefore, is immense: one of the cylinder printing machines, attended by a man and a boy, is actually capable of producing as much work as could be turned out by one hundred block printers and as many tear-boys!"; Baines, 266.

[36] Turnbull, 81.

[37] Chapman and Chassange, 8. Elsewhere Chassange estimates that Lancashire had eight textile factories in 1773, which number had risen to twenty-three by 1781; Chassange, "Calico Printing in Europe", 520.

[38] Engravers' Copyright Act, 1735, Preamble.

[39] Calico Printers' Act, 1787, Preamble. It is interesting that when the next significant piece of copyright legislation was passed (the Models and Busts Act, 1798), its preamble once more adopted the form and substance of the 1735 legislation: "Whereas divers Persons have, by their own Genius, Industry, Pains and Expence, improved and brought the Art of making New Models and Casts of Busts and of Statues of Human Figures, and of Animals, to great Perfection, in Hopes to have reaped the sole Benefit of their Labours; but that divers Persons have (without the Consent of the Proprietors thereof) copied and made Moulds from the said Models and Casts, and sold Copies and Casts of such new Models and Casts, to the great Prejudice and Detriment of the original Proprietors, and to the Discouragement of the Art of making such new Models and Casts as aforesaid".


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