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. However, we are now in the throes of a third revolution, digitisation of books, or ebooks. Books can be copied by scanning their contents, and massive projects have been born to digitise all books. While the Gutenberg project only digitises out-of-copyright books, the internet giant Google has been busy digitising in-copyright books without authorisation. A large court case is currently underway in the USA between authors and the company, a dispute yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, internet piracy of ebooks is widespread, especially in countries like Russia and China where the law is weak and vague. Two of my own books have been pirated fopr exmaple, and there seems to be no way of preventing illicit copying. Battles are being fought in other copyright areas such as popular music where downloading is rife among consumers. It makes this book very timely, and no doubt will need to be revised sooner rather than later as the target moves. This book is thus highly recommended if you want to understand the background to the problems of enforcing copyright in the internet world.