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Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates [Hardcover]

Adrian Johns
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 15, 2010 0226401189 978-0226401188 1

Since the rise of Napster and other file-sharing services in its wake, most of us have assumed that intellectual piracy is a product of the digital age and that it threatens creative expression as never before. The Motion Picture Association of America, for instance, claimed that in 2005 the film industry lost $2.3 billion in revenue to piracy online. But here Adrian Johns shows that piracy has a much longer and more vital history than we have realized—one that has been largely forgotten and is little understood.

Piracy explores the intellectual property wars from the advent of print culture in the fifteenth century to the reign of the Internet in the twenty-first. Brimming with broader implications for today’s debates over open access, fair use, free culture, and the like, Johns’s book ultimately argues that piracy has always stood at the center of our attempts to reconcile creativity and commerce—and that piracy has been an engine of social, technological, and intellectual innovations as often as it has been their adversary. From Cervantes to Sonny Bono, from Maria Callas to Microsoft, from Grub Street to Google, no chapter in the story of piracy evades Johns’s graceful analysis in what will be the definitive history of the subject for years to come.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The recording industry's panic over illegal downloads is nothing new; a century ago, London publishers faced a similar crisis when pirate editions of sheet music were widely available at significantly less cost. Similarly, the debate over pharmaceutical patents echoes an 18th-century dispute over the origins of Epsom salt. These are just two of the historical examples that Johns (The Nature of the Book) draws upon as he traces the tensions between authorized and unauthorized producers and distributors of books, music, and other intellectual property in British and American culture from the 17th century to the present. Johns's history is liveliest when it is rooted in the personal—the 19th-century renegade bibliographer Samuel Egerton Brydges, for example, or the jazz and opera lovers who created a thriving network of bootleg recordings in the 1950s—but the shifting theoretical arguments about copyright and authorial property are presented in a cogent and accessible manner. Johns's research stands as an important reminder that today's intellectual property crises are not unprecedented, and offers a survey of potential approaches to a solution. 40 b&w illus. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"In his invaluable book Piracy, Adrian Johns argues that the tendency of intellectual property battles to undermine privacy is not new. On the contrary, Johns . . . argues that ever since the medieval and Enlightenment eras, corporations have tried to defend their economic interests by searching for intellectual piracy in the private sphere of people's homes. He says that all of our current debates about intellectual piracy—from Google's efforts to create a universal digital library to the fight over how vigorous patents should be—have antecedents in the copyright wars of earlier eras."

(Jeffrey Rosen Washington Post)

“It’s easy to assume, amid all the brouhaha about intellectual property, illegal downloading, and the internet in general, that the question of piracy was born with the web browser. But as long as there have been ideas, people have been accused of stealing them. In this detail-packed biography of fakery, science historian Adrian Johns describes one of the earliest attempts to protect authors’ rights—a vellum-bound book registry in the Stationer’s Hall in 17th century London—and examines everything from the Victorian crusade against the patent, to the radio pirates of the 1920s, to the telephone phreakers of the 1970s and the computer hackers of today. Piracy is not new, he concludes, but we are due for a revolution in intellectual property, and science may be its ideal breeding ground.”—Seed


“While the rise of the Internet has given it new dimensions, the concept of intellectual piracy has existed for centuries, and the disputes of previous eras have much in common with those of our own time. In a new book, Piracy, Adrian Johns details the long history of the term and its battles, arguing that those who would shape the future of intellectual property should first understand its past.”—Inside Higher Education

(Inside Higher Education)

“Johns makes a bold claim: disputes over intellectual piracy have touched on so many crucial issues of creativity and commerce, identity and invention, science and society, that tracing them amounts to ‘a history of modernity from askance.’ . . . More generally, Piracy shows us how the very notion of intellectual property—and its sharp division into the fields of patent and copyright—was created in response to specific pressures and so could be modified dramatically or even abolished. . . . ‘We are constantly trying to shoehorn problems into an intellectual framework designed 150 years ago in a different world.’”

(Matthew Reisz Times Higher Education)

"Adrian Johns argues that piracy is a cultural force that has driven the development of intellectual-property law, politics, and practices. As copying technologies have advanced, from the invention of printing in the sixteenth century to the present, acts of piracy have shaped endeavours from scientific publishing to pharmaceuticals and software. . . . Johns suggests, counter-intuitively, that piracy can promote the development of technology. The resulting competition forces legitimate innovators to manoeuvre for advantage—by moving quickly, using technical countermeasures or banding together and promoting reputation as an indicator of quality, such as through trademarks. . . . The exclusive rights granted by intellectual-property laws are always being reshaped by public opinion, and accused pirates have lobbied against these laws for centuries."
(Michael Gollin Nature)

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (January 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226401189
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226401188
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.7 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #652,997 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
By Gkiely
Format:Kindle Edition
Adrian Johns' PIRACY is a wide-ranging and expansive view of a subject that is of intense interest as books, music and movies shift to digital dissemination. Johns' great gift is his ability to present the historical context of the piracy of intellectual property and he offers a sweeping narrative that's full of really interesting tidbits. Ultimately, Johns positions today's piracy of digital media within the context of a never-ending struggle between commerce and creativity. A great book that will be read and argued for many years.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Only For Serious Readers June 12, 2010
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Dry as dust but extremely informative and leaves the reader with a solid historical foundation of Piracy. A little conservative but when dealing with Piracy I'm inclined to agree. Worth your time...but like all University of Chicago texts this one will test your commitment to the process.

Highly recommended for the committed reader and amateur historians.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Jolly Roger May 28, 2012
In normal usage, a pirate is a blackguard who attacks ships and kills at will. But there is another way in which the word is used, someone who copies a book or product for personal gain. That is why we have laws protecting authors (copyright) and inventors (patents), so that they may be encouraged to write or develop a new product or process. In this magisterial book by Johns, the author traces the history of piracy of books and products through the ages, but especially from the revolutionary development of printing by Gutenberg in about 1450. Before him, books were handwritten by scribes and were very expensive, but after, they became cheaper, and printed books heralded a new age of knowledge. With popular books, the question of reprinting cropped up, and who owned the right to reprint a work. In Britain, the right came to be owned by the bookseller, and a system of registration evolved with The Stationers Hall, one of the guilds of the City of London. The monopoly was broken effectively by extensive piracy of books in the Ireland and Scotland, followed by the new United States. Indeed, the USA pirated not just books, but industrial products as it tried to build a flourishing manufacturing base. Such amazing but forgotten topics are dealt with in forensic detail by Johns, who is clearly a master of the subject. Copyright theft was widespread during the Victorian period, as a result of the second revolution in printing, the use of the steam-powered printing press, which produced books at a fraction of previous prices. Authors like Charles Dickens suffered at the hands of the pirates in the USA, who often edited the original text in unusual ways, not approved by the author.

After agreement on an international system of copyright in the late Victorian period, matters were stabilized.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interested in IP? You'll like this. April 11, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I read this is a supplementary text for my intellectual property class. I am independently interested in intellectual property and Johns does a superb job of laying out the historical context for piracy in America today. I think that what it really missed was sensitivity to other cultures. Chinese and Japanese ideas about intellectual property were touched on briefly but not satisfactorily. He perfunctorily showed the ways that Chinese and Japanese companies treated IP, but I would have liked him to go into a little more depth.

He writes beautifully, although a friend of mine with a bachelor's in comparative literature pointed out that Johns has a quasi-formulaic writing style. It's true. The last few chapters were excellent, especially as he delved into relatively current events. I would recommend this book to a friend interested in the legal evolution of intellectual property laws.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Well-Researched Monograph August 13, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As an archivist and historian, I found the author's research to be detailed and through (though not necessarily exhaustive). While it's true that this book is quite a beast of a volume to get through, the course the book takes as its narrative is complex and well thought-out.
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