Piracy and the history of intellectual property disputes
Offering some fascinating insights on one of the most contentious issues in publishing right now, a review of Adrian John’s Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates appeared in the January 21 edition of Abu Dhabi’s The National. Reviewer Caleb Crain writes “by making words, music and images easy to copy and share, the internet may seem to have fractured trust between producers and consumers of culture around the world in a novel way. But in fact, producers and consumers have been in conflict for centuries.” In his new book Johns offers a detailed account of this conflict, from the advent of print culture in the fifteenth century, to the reign of the Internet in the twenty-first.
In his review Crain briefly summarizes the history of intellectual property disputes detailed in Johns’s book, and picks out a few details he finds most salient to current debates. From The National:
When literary property was abolished in Paris after 1789, cheaply printed, timely, derivative literature flushed everything else out of the marketplace—imagine the final triumph of the Huffington Post over the New York Times. Moralistic bullying failed when 19th-century American reprinters tried to agree not to pirate one another’s piracies. Turning on consumers led to public relations disaster when the BBC hunted down illicit listeners in the 1920s, and again when Hollywood fought video tapes as home piracy in the 1980s. Unlike bullying and persecution, however, law has sometimes succeeded, especially when law has built on the conventions and courtesies that authors, publishers and readers have aspired to live up to among themselves. Yet some laws have proved so ambiguous that litigants have lost heart, gone bankrupt, or died before they could recover their rights.
In other words, Google’s private negotiations with publishers and authors are an excellent start, but to ensure the future of copyright online, the people of the world, through their elected representatives, need to have a look for themselves. Intellectual property has been reconsidered and renegotiated with every new technology, and to hesitate to do so now, out of a timorous respect for earlier compromises, would be a failure of imagination.