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  • Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns
  • Johan Mathew
Adrian Johns. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 640 pp. ISBN 9780226401188, $38.00 (paper).

There is nothing like hawking a manuscript to publishers to make one aware of the fraught nexus between creativity and commerce. Leftist scholarship is increasingly embracing open-access journals and universities are pushing their students and faculty to make their scholarship freely available. Yet publishers are increasingly loathe to publish work when parts of it or previous versions are freely available elsewhere. Why are scholarly books so shockingly expensive? Why is it so difficult to obtain sufficient permissions to reproduce visual materials? Copyright piracy can hardly be a significant concern for publishers of scholarship, nevertheless piracy and the intellectual property regime, which it subverts, have tremendous impacts even in the more secluded reaches of the ivory tower.

Adrian Johns’ Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates traces this fraught history of piracy and intellectual property in the Anglophone world from the seventeenth century to the present. Through a series of engaging vignettes, he traces the unfolding and mutating conflict between groups dedicated to the freedom and accessibility of information and those asserting the rights of intellectual property. These groups are constantly shifting and the history is continually surprising as to what alliances appear on each side of these issues. Johns covers quite disparate materials and is most insightful when he identifies recurring themes in these myriad controversies. He documents the tensions between sustaining the enlightened debate in the public sphere and preserving the privacy of the home and the workplace, and how these ideas were continually reformulated through battles over piracy. Particularly interesting in the regard is the role of propriety and social norms as regulating commercial property rather than legal distinctions or ideological definitions. Rather than ideas of intellectual property preceding acts of piracy, Johns convincingly argues that it was piratical practice that repeatedly forced the delineation and enforcement of intellectual property rights.

Ultimately, though, Johns refrains from overarching arguments and focuses on the practical specificities of piracy and enforcing property rights in each historical era. The only long historical trajectory that he identifies is how ad-hoc and disparate efforts to enforce intellectual property rights slowly coalesced in the twentieth century into an industry organized for the defense of intellectual property. But even this trajectory, he suggests is ripe for revolution today, and Johns [End Page 591] pushes for a rethinking of intellectual property that will no longer be hampered by the nineteenth century divisions between mechanical and literary fields. Piracy insists on the inescapably historical nature of both piracy and intellectual property, a conclusion that will surprise few historians but is nonetheless a useful corrective for the wider audiences that this book has no doubt reached.

It would be impossible to do justice to the varied and richly researched chapters individually, so I will simply point to those chapters which may be of particular interest to economic and business historians. In the second chapter, Johns elucidates the counter-intuitive history of the origins of the term “piracy” in the commercial battles between printers and booksellers in Restoration England. Johns’ sixth chapter details the incredible legal struggle that resulted in the establishment of copyright, a process which was enmeshed in politicaleconomic questions regarding the nature of property, monopoly, and the distinction between intellectual and mechanical labor. Chapter 10 examines the debates over patent reform in Victorian Britain that pitted industrialists support for free trade against inventors’ defense of the newly coined “intellectual property.” Johns’ chapter on “The Great Oscillation War” uncovers a fascinating history of proper and piratical methods of listening through a business history of the BBC and the Royal Mail. The penultimate chapter similarly finds the origins of contemporary computer and software corporations in the amateur piracy of telephone lines.

Piracy is at its most analytically compelling in the early chapters that benefit from Johns’ expertise in the history of the book and the history of science in the Early Modern Britain. These chapters reveal unexpected origins for contemporary concepts through a carefully...


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