It cost too much, I wasn’t going to buy it anyway, and anyhow, information wants to be free!

Oh, pardon me, dear reader—I was just getting into the spirit of the day. It is once again International Talk Like a Pirate Day, that day in which we can all pretend we’re sailing the high seas—or downloading ebooks illegally.

I’ve touched on this day once before, and so did Branko Collin. There’s not really a lot that’s new in terms of ebook piracy right now, unless you consider the Internet Archive’s Open Library to qualify, so I thought I’d bring up an ebook that makes for some interesting (if dry) reading on the history of intellectual property piracy: Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns.

I got this book for free some years ago from the University of Chicago’s monthly free ebook program, and read it, but for some reason never got around to reviewing it. It’s been too long since then for me to be able to review it in detail, but I do remember that it was fascinating to learn just how far back people had been ripping other people’s books off.

Of course, for much of piracy’s history, IP piracy referred to rogue print shops running off copies of someone else’s books and selling them without paying royalties. And this book’s history only runs up through computer software, and doesn’t really touch on ebook piracy or more modern topics. Still, there’s some fascinating stuff in here, especially in the later sections dealing with the 20th century and the first cases where new technologies led to new piratical problems.

Early television and radio were plagued by cases of intellectual property piracy, with hobbyists building their own radio receivers instead of buying “legitimate” commercially licensed ones. In the middle of the twentieth century, the advent of reel-to-reel tapes made it possible for opera and jazz fans to start duplicating and swapping recordings back and forth. They formed tape-swapping collectives that strongly reminded me of anime fansub tape swapping collectives a half century later, and had a surprisingly large influence on the culture of the time.

Johns writes that one major impetus to new forms of piracy is when an ability that had previously only been available to commercial interests (such as, the ability to copy audio recordings) became available in the home. One could lay some forms of ebook piracy at the feet of such developments, given how simple it is to scan books into ebooks in the home now, with do-it-yourself scanners or commercial scanners like the models by Czur.

The book can be a little dry and hard to get through at times, but it’s worth grinding through it. Intellectual property piracy has a long and involved history, and understanding that history might help you understand where it’s going today.

In any case, I hope you arrrrr having a happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

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