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Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates
By Adrian Johns
University of Chicago Press

“It is the beginning of a new century, and the music industry is facing a crisis. New technology, new media, and innovative business practices are challenging the copyright principles that have underpinned the industry for as long as anyone can remember. Taking advantage of a revolutionary process that allows for exact copying, ‘pirates’ are replicating songs at a tremendous rate.”

So begins chapter 12 of Adrian Johns’ Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. This is an excellent summation of our modern age, but in chapter 12—barely halfway through the book—Bill Gates has not yet been born and we have only just reached the 1900s. Up until this time, the unit of piratical replication was not an mp3 but a sheet of music, and the revolutionary technology was photolithography.

As the book’s 600 plus pages of history attest to, piracy is in no way unique to our times. Johns’ book follows the twin developments of copyright and patents as they combine to form what we term today “intellectual property.” That these two should even be classified under one umbrella was not always so necessary. Johns, a professor in history of science at the University of Chicago, chronicles the many challenges to both copyright and patents from the seventeenth century to the modern day. Their differences, broadly, are this: copyright protects creative work and, as it exists today in the United States, is a right inherent to any creator so one does not need to specially apply. Patents protect an invention, and they are explicitly granted by a state government. As even these loose definitions imply, the question of intellectual property is intertwined with those of nationalism, the nature of creative genius, and the realities of economics. Johns argues that piracy and intellectual property are two sides of the same coin – they progress in parallel directions as two opposing forces seeking equilibrium.

So how did “pirate” become the nom de guerre of one side of these intellectual property wars? It seems a stretch to conflate swashbuckling seafarers of yore with a publisher selling illegally printed pieces of paper or a teenager downloading music at his computer. But in fact, use of the word “pirate” is intrinsic in the very origins of intellectual property. The first time “Pyrate” was evoked to denounce illegal printers was in the early patent disputes of seventeenth-century England. Piracy was not just thievery; there was a sense that pirates were “irritants to the civilized order.” Civilized order, however, could simply mean entrenched institutions and so a question common to intellectual property disputes was—as we view them retroactively—is it a crime or is it “entrepreneurship denounced as piracy?” Johns compiles an impressive collection of developments—from bath salts to scientific publishing to radio to hacking—where this question is tested. Those sheet music pirates of the 1900s were in fact satisfying a demand for cheap piano music in the burgeoning middle class—a need that was unmet by the expensive traditional printers.

While the pages of Piracy follow a chronological march through time, another major theme is piracy through space, as communication expanded from local to national to international scales. In the eighteenth century, for example, Ireland and Scotland were both seen as havens for reprinters pirating English works, and their absorption into a United Kingdom catalyzed intellectual property debates leading to legislation such as the Copyright Act of 1814.

Analysis of piracy on a global scale is, however, a little lacking, especially as the book tantalizingly opens with the story of the electronics giant NEC’s parallel pirate corporation. In 2006, a two-year international investigation revealed that pirates had not only counterfeited NEC’s chips, disk drives and keyboards, but built an entire pirate corporation that developed new “NEC products” and signed royalty agreements with over fifty companies, who thought they were dealing with the real NEC, to manufacture them. The whole operation spanned four continents. Having established the global reach of piracy, the book then lurches backwards in time to seventeenth England, where copyright had its start. When it loops back to the modern age, it stays disappointingly American and Euro-centric. The notable exception is Sony v. Universal (a.k.a. the Betamax case), which affirmed the legality of recording television shows on videotape. The American entertainment industry, at the time, saw the ruling as a victory for Japanese technology and ruinous to American entertainment. (Then MPAA head Jack Valenti famously said, “VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” This prediction was not so prescient, as the VCR opened up the home video market and invigorated the film industry. Such is the difficulty of making predictions about new technology.) With copyright disputes becoming increasing multinational—Pirate Bay’s safe haven in Sweden for example—it seems remiss not to delve further. Implicit in cross-national copyright disputes is cultural imperialism, which of course originates in actual imperialism. Whether it was colonial American reprinting British works or the pirated DVDs that are more common than legitimate ones in China, it involves a less-developed country pirating a wealthier one. Although Piracy does not engage in contemporary issues directly, it does provide a historical context against which we can begin to understand them.

The book could have also easily been titled Pirates, as Johns wisely allows the colorful personalities of pirates to drive each chapter of the book. There is for example, the story of Mathew Carey, a pirate printer driven out of Ireland after the English eradicated the Irish press and threatened him with high treason. Carey escaped, dressed in petticoats and a wig, to the United States. With virtually no contacts in his new country, a stroke of luck enabled him to get an advance of $400 from the legendary Marquis de Lafayette, setting him onto the path of becoming the best-known publisher in his new country. Over the next century, he and his (later estranged) son Henry would have an indelible impact on printing in the United States.

Johns writes in crisp, structured prose. Taken together, the opening sections of each chapter are a concise summation of the book, and drilling down even further, the topic sentences of each paragraph form an outline of each chapter. This is not to say that the book is only worthy of a skim either. Piracy is richly detailed, packed with information that cannot be wholly absorbed in one read. It should be easily accessible to the public, to be consulted whenever matters of intellectual property turn up in our modern lives. As the breadth of Johns’ scholarship demonstrates, that is nearly all the time.

The cover of Piracy is a clever riff of a pirate ship, reminiscent of a certain Swedish BitTorrent website, sailing along a blue Mac progress bar. Only a third of the progress bar is filled, and the pirate ship is sailing off to the right—off into the future. Johns’ book has filled in the blue of the progress bar so far, but much “progress” —a word used with cautious optimism—remains to be made, and the pirate ship has yet to reach the horizon.

Sarah Zhang writes and works in a neuroscience lab in Cambridge, MA.

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