Thursday, April 29, 2010


Anyone interested in intellectual property issues and the debates about the future of publishing will want to take a break and tackle the mammoth new book by Adrian Johns, Privacy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Johns argues that intellectual property has mostly developed as a response to piracy, the latter arising as part of the new book culture and the development of the notion of the author and literary property. Johns orients us to the deep historical underpinnings of the issues that have coalesced today to form the heated battles over intellectual property. The last few sentences of his book endorse his sense of why having the historical perspective is so important: “To be sure, history cannot tell us exactly what to do, or what choices to make [regarding the increasingly contentious arguments about intellectual property]. The responsibility for those decisions will be ours alone. But the time to take the decision is surely coming. History can help us prepare for it” (p. 518). However, another value in the study of history emerges from this book. Considering the late eighteenth century debates about publishing, Johns observes, “The old world of a few large houses issuing authoritative editions could not survive. Those that endured were smaller, faster, newer. They employed whatever secondhand tools they could lay their hands on, worked at breakneck speed with whatever journeymen they could get, and ensured a rapid turnover by issuing newspapers and tracts with an immediate sale” (p. 53). Such descriptions bear an uncanny resemblance to what we too often assume are circumstances unique to our day – in this case the challenge of the Web and e-publishing to the dominance of a small group of print publishers. It is why the study of history is so essential to information professionals, who are often seduced by the promises and predictions of what seems like a never ending supply of powerful new technologies. Of course, in most school like ours only a small portion of our students are exposed to such a perspective.

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