Piracy The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates
by Adrian Johns
University of Chicago Press, 2009
Cloth: 978-0-226-40118-8 | Paper: 978-0-226-40119-5 | Electronic: 978-0-226-40120-1


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.


Adrian Johns is professor of history and chair of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


“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

— 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

"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


1. A General History of the Pirates

2. The Invention of Piracy

3. The Piratical Enlightenment

4. Experimenting with Print

5. Pharmaceutical Piracy and the Origins of Medical Patenting

6. Of Epics and Orreries

7. The Land without Property

8. Making a Nation

9. The Printing Counterrevolution

10. Inventors, Schemers, and Men of Science

11. International Copyright and the Science of Civilization

12. The First Pirate Hunters

13. The Great Oscillation War

14. Intellectual Property and the Nature of Science

15. The Pirate at Home and at Large

16. From Phreaking to Fudding

17. Past, Present, and Future