History, Law, Literature, Reviews

Piracy—a definitve history of intellectual property

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In a recent book review in last Saturday’s Weekend Australian Roy Williams begins by acknowledging intellectual property disputes as one of he most pressing issue of the twenty-fist century. As Williams writes:

The laws of copyright, patents and related regimes are notoriously arcane; they are a mystery to most lawyers, let alone the public. Yet intellectual property is integral to some of the curliest issues of the early 21st century: the regulation of biotechnology, the digitisation of news and books, and freer access for the Third World to life-saving drugs, to name just three. To understand contemporary geopolitics, a working knowledge of intellectual property is mandatory.

Enter Adrian Johns’s, Piracy: Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, offering readers the definitive historical account of every important IP dispute from the advent of print culture all the way to the present day, augmented by the unparalleled insights of its author.
Noting one particularly fascinating example Williams writes:

Especially compelling is the detailed account of the emergence of the modern notion of copyright. [Johns] analyses the central role played by London book traders of the 17th and 18th centuries. Based around Stationers Hall near St Paul’s Cathedral, they made their living selling cheap reprints of books by local and foreign authors, and infuriated many influential people.
As Johns explains, foreigners were helpless to prevent their titles being exploited. Important local (English) authors and publishers were protected to some extent by a rudimentary royal licence system, but even that fell into abeyance during the internecine British wars of 1642-60 and in the generation following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. By the 1690s, it was open slather.…
Arguments and counter-arguments raged about the relative importance of untrammelled commerce, the open discussion of ideas and information in the public sphere, and due respect for the creative process.
Eventually, in 1710, the British parliament imposed a compromise by enacting the world’s first copyright law. The principles were debated and refined in subsequent decades. The basic notion—now taken for granted—is that authors should be encouraged to create. They have no inherent proprietary rights in their work, but are granted a limited monopoly by government fiat. Crucially, the monopoly extends only to the mode of expression of their ideas, not the ideas themselves.

For more, continue reading on the Weekend Australian website, or read this excerpt from the book.