Skip to main content


Required Reading: Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

May 30, 2010

I've just finished Adrian Johns' 2009 book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, a 500+ page magnum opus stretching from the 1600s to the present. Johns is a noted University of Chicago historian, and his book is a fascinating and essential read for anyone interested in the history of the term "intellectual property" and development of the modern copyright and patent systems.

A warning to readers: you may not want to start at the beginning, unless you're really interested in the organization of pre-industrial printing in England in the 1700s. Because the book is organized chronologically, the first several chapters are, well, a bit less accessible.

So here's my advice: start with Chapter 13, which is about the rise of radio in the UK in the 1920s. Turns out that history is remarkably relevant today. Radio arose in the shadow of a patent thicket, became the province of tinkers, and posed a puzzle for a government worried that "experimenters" would ruin things by mis-adjusting their sets and flooding the ether with howling oscillation. Many will immediately recognize the parallels to modern controversies about iPhone "jailbreaking," user innovation, and the future of the Internet.

The momentum of Chapter 13 should carry you through to the end of the book. Along the way, you'll be reminded that today's debates have historical roots in controversies over computer hacking, phone phreaking, home taping, and ultimately the 1920s patent-law rebellions against AT&T. This is history every interested copy-fighter, patent reformer, and netizen needs to know. Prof. Johns ends his book by describing the unique thing about our current historical moment: the rise of what he calls an "intellectual property defense industry":

As piracy has grown and diversified, so a counterindustry has emerged, dedicated to combating it. The coherence and scope of this industry are relatively new and remarkable. In previous centuries, particular groups or industries mounted efforts against piracy; but they did not generally regard them as fronts in one common cause. Now they do. ... So the first implication is that we need to appreciate the historical significance of this industry of antipiracy policing and apprehend its consequences, at every social level. The second implication follows from that. Measures adopted against piracy can sometimes impinge on other, equally valued, aspects of society. Indeed, it is possible that they must do so, given the nature of the task. When that happens, however, they can trigger deeply felt reactions. The result is a crisis, with the potential to create a moment of genuine transformation.

If that's right (and I think it is), then opposing the "intellectual property defense industry" is not the same thing as opposing "intellectual property." Rather, it is about insisting on values like civil liberties, privacy, and autonomy, and not allowing antipiracy enforcement to trample them.

But don't stop reading at the end of the book. Go back for the earlier chapters. For example, Chapter 10 (Google Books excerpt) tells the story of how the term "intellectual property" arose as the byproduct of efforts in the 1870s to abolish the patent system altogether—patent advocates popularized the term to harness their cart to copyright ("literary property"), which was perceived as the more secure and legitimate institution. Chapter 8 reminds us how the United States was born as a "pirate nation," refusing to recognize the copyrights of foreign (mainly British) authors. Chapter 9 explains the early history of "legal deposit" as a requirement for copyright (and how publishers hated it), which in turn became an important foundation for many of our most revered national research libraries. Chapter 12 describes the origins of the first organized, industry-supported, private antipiracy enforcement operation (it was music publishers fighting against sheet music reprinters in 1903).

All fascinating stuff.

JavaScript license information