Monday, February 22, 2010

Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Digital Scrum; Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/21/10

Jeffrey Young, Chronicle of Higher Education; Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Digital Scrum:

History shows that intellectual property is more complex than either its creators or copiers care to admit, says a Chicago scholar

"The history of publishing is swimming with pirates—far more than Adrian Johns expected when he started hunting through the archives for them. And he thinks their stories may hold keys to understanding the latest battles over digital publishing—and the future of the book.

Johns, a historian at the University of Chicago, has done much of his hunting from his office here, which is packed so high with books that the professor bought a rolling ladder to keep them in easy reach. He can rattle off a long list of noted pirates through the years:

Alexander Pope accused "pyrates" of publishing unauthorized copies of his work in the 18th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, a man known as the "king of the pirates" used the then-new technology of photolithography to spread cheap reprints of popular sheet music. In the 1950s, a pirate music label named Jolly Roger issued recordings by Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats from LP's that the major labels were no longer publishing. A similar label put out opera recordings smuggled from the Soviet bloc.

Along with the practice itself, "pirates" in publishing just keep resurfacing, and Johns argues that the label is no accident. He sees it as the pirates' attempt to evoke romantic notions of seafaring swashbucklers. Sure, the copying done by culture pirates may be technically illegal, but they have long claimed the moral high ground, arguing that they are not petty thieves, but principled heroes rightfully returning creative work to a public commons by making free or cheap copies available.

"There is an association with a certain kind of liberty—living perhaps alongside the law rather than in direct opposition to it," Johns says. "What the pirate community can represent is a kind of alternative that has its own virtues."

Johns has collected these and other pirate lessons in a new book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates (University of Chicago Press). The weighty work, more than 550 pages, covers hundreds of years of history of copyright and intellectual property in the West, focusing on the stories of those angling to disrupt prevailing practices.

The codified rules and laws allowing an author or publisher to claim exclusive rights to a literary work—what we now call "copyright"—did not develop until the 18th century, long after the printing press was invented. And since then the notion has been challenged again and again—sparking controversy long before the latest disputes over the pirating of music, movies, and other material over high-speed digital networks."

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