History of piracy, reviewed by EFF's senior copyright lawyer

Fred von Lohmann, senior copyright attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has just posted a review of Adrian John's monumental, 500-page Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, a thoroughgoing and well-researched history that draws compelling conclusions about the need to view piracy as a business-model crisis, not a moral one. I'm about halfway through Piracy myself, and really enjoying it:
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.

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

Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

(Thanks, Fred!)


  1. In Reflections in Bullough’s Pond, Diana Muir makes the case that Eli Whitney’s contract to make muskets with interchangeable parts was a total fraud, intended only to raise enough money to pursue his claims of patent infringement on the cotton gin (which, being a pretty simple idea, was immediately pirated).

  2. Speaking of history, remember that sometime in the next 9 years the mouse is going to want another copyright extension. I am hoping all the copyfighters out there are planning for this battle.

  3. Please understand that I’m a student with no money at all but I am buying this right now. I have an enormous amount of respect for the EFF and their work is incredibly comforting to me personally when the *AAs are indiscriminately suing random people, and just about anything interesting you do on a computer can be somehow construed as illegal. And the position that piracy is a business crisis rather than a moral one is exactly what I’ve ineloquently been trying to communicate. So you see, I must have this book, and I won’t have the audacity to pirate it.

    Registered to make this comment.

    1. I’ve got 25 bucks in the bank but work like this is something I’m happy to send my dollars to support. As soon as that bank account value goes up a bit I’ll be buying a copy.

  4. I’m with PARLIAMENT. this is going to be my very next book purchase. yes, I will actually buy it, even though I, too, am a student with no money.

    Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. ” 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.””

    The Something defense industry never is the same thing as The Something, even the Defense Industry defense industry is not the same thing as the Defense Industry.

    As to something completely different: The hurried assurances of ‘i’ll buy it, not torrent it’ for this book show that the moral components of the divide between theft and Piracy are well recognized, even though the divide itself is partly uncharted.

  6. @zikman & @PARLIAMENT I’m ordering this tomorrow for the Library.
    You should do the same for any books you don’t want publishers to magically turn into non-shareable locked-down DRM’d ebooks.
    The Library’s current “business model” of public access is not compatible with the publishing industry’s future plans of digital distribution.
    So while everyone else may be able to “grab a torrent” -for varying values of “everyone” :) – your Library’s ability to allow shared access through purchasing for your community doesn’t quite work out. New model needed ASAP.

  7. I’m going to go order this book right away.
    Thanks for the heads up.
    Looks like a fabulous read.

  8. I hate how the unauthorized duplication and distribution of intellectual property is called “piracy”. Yes, I know it has a fairly long history, but this history was initially of an inflammatory comparison between sharing and copying on one hand, and the violent boarding of ships for the purposes of seizing loot and kidnap victims. Why do the authors want to reinforce that connection?

  9. Edison, who invented and held patents on the light bulb, had many companies infringe his invention. Because of his other projects he was only able to enter litigation during the end of the life of the patent. In those days you had to litigate state by state. An infringer’s political connections were important with regard to how the judge viewed the case. In the end, for all the money spent in court, there was no gain for Edison.
    Lawsuits are a crap shoot. A big payday for the law firms but the clear possibility of bankruptcy for those bringing the suit.

  10. UPDATE: the book is available at Scribd for $10, I don’t know if fully DRMized or not. Only to US based people :/

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