A Glorious Thing

Julie Peters

  • Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns
    Chicago, 626 pp, £24.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 226 40118 8

Bruce Sterling’s 1998 political thriller, Distraction, is set in the year 2044, and roving bands of land-based pirates have taken over the American hinterlands, swamps and roadways, armed with smoke bombs, high-frequency magnets (for scrambling computers) and superglue. The army is bankrupt, and the police force is disabled by corruption and general ineptitude. So – much like the 17th-century high seas – America’s highways are, de facto, beyond the law. It’s hard to distinguish between the homeless nomad ‘prole’ pirates and the military officers who set up road blocks and demand payoff to feed the starving troops. What has bankrupted the US economy is a different form of piracy. Several decades earlier, an intellectual property Cold War broke out, and the Chinese (who had never liked the idea of intellectual property) won. They put all books, music, movies, scientific formulae, pharmaceutical recipes and computer software up on their satellite networks, where they became freely accessible. The age of intellectual property was over. Makers of ideas would henceforth have to live on prestige alone.

In Adrian Johns’s account, intellectual property rights have always been precarious. According to him, the concepts of intellectual property and intellectual piracy arose as delayed responses to the advent of printing and the development of a commercial book trade, around the year 1660, in London. ‘To find the origins of intellectual piracy,’ he writes,

stand at the main door of St Paul’s Cathedral. Facing west, walk away from the Cathedral, heading down Ludgate and toward Fleet Street. After about a hundred yards you come upon a narrow alley … Entering the alley, the din of the traffic quickly fades, and you find yourself in a small courtyard. A doorway at the far corner leads into a building of indeterminate age with a stone façade. You pass along a brief, twisting entranceway and into an elegant antechamber. But then the passage suddenly and dramatically opens out, leading into a vast, formal hall. It is richly decorated with 17th-century panelling and arrayed flags, all illuminated by stained-glass windows portraying Caxton, Shakespeare, Cranmer and Tyndale. You are in Stationers’ Hall, the centre of London’s old book trade. And here, beyond all the elegant joinery and ceremonial paraphernalia, lies the key to the emergence of piracy. It sits quietly in a modest muniments room. It is a book.

The book is the Stationers’ Register, a ‘heavy manuscript tome of some 650 pages, bound in vellum’. By entering a title in the register, a stationer laid claim to the sole right to publish that title: not legal copyright as we know it, but a guild right generally protected by the Stationers’ Company. ‘Major historical currents, critical to the development of modernity, converged on the book that still sits quietly in its chamber just down the road from St Paul’s.’

Piracy defied the claims inscribed in the Stationers’ Register and did so with increasing flagrancy, spreading across borders (to the wilds of Ireland and America, for instance), and ignoring the old world of genteel trade courtesies. It may have emerged in tandem with the legally defensible intellectual property rights that came into being at the beginning of the 18th century, in response to a rapidly expanding readership and a culture of inventors eager to exploit commercial possibilities. But, Johns argues, ‘the law of what we now call intellectual property has often lagged behind piratical practices.’ Most of its central principles were developed to fight piracy. ‘To assume that piracy merely derives from legal doctrine,’ he writes, ‘is to get the history – and therefore the politics, and much else besides – back to front.’ The word may have described a practice – and eventually a legal violation – but it was primarily an accusation: a perception of intellectual outlawry at a moment when cultural capital seemed to be up for grabs. It is not a coincidence that the golden age of Caribbean buccaneering – the later 17th and the 18th centuries – coincided with the rise of both intellectual property and intellectual piracy. ‘Piracy’ in the intellectual sense is driven by the idea that there are dangerously stateless enemies of property, sailing across boundaries with impunity. The concept feeds on fears that uncivilised ruffians may breach our borders, infiltrate our homes, and rape our women or our software programs. Captain Hooks of another sort.

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