Piracy Throughout History

If you read William Patry’s Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, you get the idea that “piracy,” as a term to describe intellectual property infringement, was coined by Jack Valenti at the MPAA in the 1980s in order to create a “folk devil” and incite the public against infringers.

Wrong — as you will learn if you read even the first chapter of Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (University of Chicago Press, 2009), by the University of Chicago science historian Adrian Johns.  I personally don’t favor the term “piracy,” but in fact that use of the term dates back to the 17th century.

This scholarly tome — if you can manage to slog through it (hint: skip the three chapters on patents) — provides a fascinating historical perspective on how notions of intellectual property developed over time.  What was “authorship,” how did it compare with “invention,” and how should those things be protected for the good of society?

What we think of as second-nature today was nothing of the kind three hundred years ago.  The distinction between an authored work and its printed manifestation did not occur to anyone until relatively recently; and the nature of an invention took lots of long arguments in Parliament to determine.  Johns explains these long, drawn-out processes in great detail, focusing on the ideas and movements that came and went over the years.

Piracy is a great companion piece to Pat Choate’s equally fascinating work from 2005, Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization. That book’s basic thesis is that robust industrial societies stay that way by protecting their intellectual property strongly, but got that way in the first place by stealing the IP of others.

Johns’ position on this issue is somewhat converse: he states that simple economics combined with restrictive intellectual property practices (whether by law or by convention) forced the development of new technologies for distributing IP more cheaply to take place in new worlds.  His focal point and starting place is England; his new worlds are Ireland and then the United States.  You didn’t want to register your book with the Stationers’ Guild, which meant having to supply copies at no charge to all of the university libraries in the UK?  Then you either worked locally and risked punishment, or you went across the Irish Sea or Atlantic Ocean to escape the establishment or the law.  From there you could print your cheaper editions of English literature and import them back into England.

One of my favorite parts of Piracy comes later, in Johns’s discussion of the development of radio — in particular, of the BBC and its license-fee system in the UK.  Johns goes into lavish detail about how the British government grappled with what types of licenses to issue to different types of people — passive listeners vs. “radio experimenters” — and how ineffectual the government was at policing abuses of such licenses, especially when primitive reception equipment produced feedback that ruined the listening experience for everyone in the immediate area.  Although Johns makes no mention of it (and perhaps doesn’t realize it), this episode has thought-provoking implications for the current controversy over whether network service providers should police copyrights through content filtering technologies.

Piracy ends with the proposed settlement between Google and the book publishing industry in late 2008 (in fact, it’s curious that the subtitle of the book ends with “Gates” rather than “Google”).   Like Choate, Johns doesn’t take sides in the Copyright Wars.  Instead he suggests that our only hope of getting the most out of intellectual property is to look back at how it was developed over time and revisit some of the discussions and debates that got us to where we are now.

Copyright abolitionists who claim that copyright is merely a quaint anachronism invented by the Stationers Guild to create a monopoly on printing in England should read this book to find out how wrong they are.  The notion of copyright has shifted over time through careful thought and action.  Our current intellectual property regimes might well be improved, but it’s wrong to dismiss them as seventeeth-century concepts that were grafted wholesale onto the digital age. Instead, it’s right to look at how we got from the Stationers’ Guild to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in order to plot the most appropriate next steps in the development of intellectual property.

One comment

  1. Phil Lelyveld · ·

    It sounds fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading it.

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