History shows that intellectual property is more complex than either its creators or copiers care to admit, says a Chicago scholar
The history of publishing is swimming with pirates—far more than Adrian Johns expected when he started hunting through the archives for them. And he thinks their stories may hold keys to understanding the latest battles over digital publishing—and the future of the book.
Johns, a historian at the University of Chicago, has done much of his hunting from his office here, which is packed so high with books that the professor bought a rolling ladder to keep them in easy reach. He can rattle off a long list of noted pirates through the years:
Alexander Pope accused "pyrates" of publishing unauthorized copies of his work in the 18th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, a man known as the "king of the pirates" used the then-new technology of photolithography to spread cheap reprints of popular sheet music. In the 1950s, a pirate music label named Jolly Roger issued recordings by Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats from LP's that the major labels were no longer publishing. A similar label put out opera recordings smuggled from the Soviet bloc....
Johns has collected these and other pirate lessons in a new book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates (University of Chicago Press). The weighty work, more than 550 pages, covers hundreds of years of history of copyright and intellectual property in the West, focusing on the stories of those angling to disrupt prevailing practices....
Adrian Johns grew up steeped in the ones and zeros of the new information age. As a teenager in a town just west of London in the early 1980s, he spent hours hunched over his Sharp MZ-80K, an early home computer, designing and building video games. While his classmates played football or chased girls, he started his own software company, called Cromwell Computing (named for the apartment building where he and his parents lived). He even enjoyed some success with a game called Minotaur's Cave, in which players navigated a crudely drawn maze to kill creatures and collect treasure—what is now an archetypal video-game scenario. "About six months ago," he says with a grin, "I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, I should have patented that!"...
His argument is leveled at one scholar in particular: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, a pioneer in the field of the history of the book who is now an emerita professor of history at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Eisenstein has long argued that the printing press essentially led to the Renaissance, by allowing the dissemination of knowledge and easy consistency of book editions that were not possible in what she calls "manuscript culture."
But Johns argues that even after printing was established, stability was never guaranteed. Pirate editions of Hamlet, for instance, botched the play's most famous line as, "To be or not to be, Aye, there's the point."...
Some colleagues see his comfort in multiple disciplines as a key strength and say he brings a fresh take to the sometimes stuffy field of book history. Anthony Grafton, a history professor at Princeton University, says in an e-mail interview that Johns's first book is already a "classic," adding that "he's a good thing" for the field. Grafton declines to weigh in further, though, because he is writing his own review of Piracy and doesn't want to scoop himself....
If Johns were not married—his wife, Alison Winter, is also a history professor here at Chicago—with four small children, he would make his next project a ride-along with pirate police around the world to document their practices. "I don't think I can do it, just because I can't travel that much," says Johns, who is 44. "It needs somebody young and single to do it."...
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