Books for the News

Yo-Ho-Ho and a Stack of Positive Reviews

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February roared in like a pirate, and it goes out like one, too. To kick off the month, on February 1, the Press offered a one-day only free download of Adrian Johns’s new book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (after that offer expired, we put forth John’s previous book The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, which is still available for free download until the end of the month). Not only did our little experiment generate some news, but Johns’s book has been making headlines ever since (check out the reviews in The National, Inside Higher Ed, and the Weekend Australian). Now, as February comes to a close, Johns and his history of intellectual property appear in two prestigious publications.
Times Higher Education profiles both the man and the book. Matthew Reisz writes:

Today, Johns argues, the many disputes and confusions about intellectual property “seem to be heading towards the kind of crisis that precedes a revolution”. Yet he firmly believes that a historical approach can help illuminate our current dilemmas and reveal how seemingly intractable problems can be solved.

And in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey R. Young sits down with Johns in his book-filled office, follows him to class, and traces the scholar’s career. On the subject of the book, Young writes:

It is packed with previously obscure but colorful characters, though. Like the so-called “pirate king” of England from the early 1900s, James Frederick Willetts. Well, that might have been his real name—he also went by several aliases.
Willetts is one of Johns’s favorite pirates because he had the nerve to testify before Parliament defending his illegal sheet-music-distribution ring. “He got a certain grudging respect from the industry and some of the parliamentarians for this,” says Johns. “Which of course didn’t stop them from throwing him in prison.”
The pirate king’s argument: The country was experiencing a piano boom at the time, so a lot more families needed sheet music. But the major publishers catered to clientele who could pay 18 pence per song, while Willetts charged just two pence. Because the rightful owners had no hope of selling to the new audiences at those prices, Willetts testified, he did no harm to their businesses with his efforts—while bringing high culture and educational benefits to all. “Indeed, piracy might even increase the sales of the legitimate publishers, since it amounted to free advertising,” Johns writes, summarizing the pirate’s logic.
The last part of that argument could have been made today, except that now the debate involves digital downloads rather than musical scores.

For more on Johns and Piracy, read an excerpt.