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Adrian Johns

Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, Univ. of Chicago [Keynoter]

Adrian Johns
Adrian Johns teaches in the Department of History and the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the influential The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (University of Chicago Press, 1998), which won the Leo Gershoy Award of the American Historical Association, the John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies, the Louis Gottschalk Prize of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the SHARP Prize for the best work on the history of authorship, reading and publishing. He has also published widely in the history of science and the history of the book. Educated in Britain at the University of Cambridge, Professor Johns has taught at the University of Kent at Canterbury, the University of California, San Diego, and the California Institute of Technology. He is currently working on a history of intellectual piracy from the invention of printing to the Internet.

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Research Sample: Proposal for new book on history of intellectual piracy

The following is part of an unpublished (and unpublishable) proposal for a new book I’m writing on the history of intellectual piracy. It is a bit hyperbolic, but it gives an idea of the intended scope and significance of the project.

Ours is supposed to be an age of information—even of an information revolution. Yet it suddenly seems as though the enemies of intellectual property are everywhere. Universities find themselves havens for countless devotees of file-sharing systems like KaZaA and Scour, services that the recording industry condemns flatly as piracy. Biotechnology companies, testing genetically modified organisms in Indian cotton fields, accuse local farmers of being “seed pirates,” only to be confronted by huge protests at their own alleged “biopiracy.” The same charge is hurled at high-tech “pharmers” trying to negotiate a deal with indigenous communities in Peru to exploit local lore in the search for new medicines. Meanwhile, a Russian graduate student comes to the United States to present a technical paper at a conference, and is promptly thrown into jail—not for pirating anything himself, but for divulging principles that might allow others to do so. And Hollywood executives make front-page headlines when their companies join forces to sell movies online, having been spurred into rare cooperation by their mutual fear of losing control of their intellectual property. In today’s global economy, there are not just pirate books, CDs and videos, but pirate jeans, pirate motorcycles, pirate pharmaceuticals, and pirate Pokemon. One recent novel even envisions the ruin of the entire US economy after China releases the source code of major proprietary software onto the Internet—and to judge by the jeremiads of Michael Greene, Michael Eisner, and their counterparts, such a prospect is not so hyperbolic. A specter is haunting Europe, as a latter-day Engels might have written, and that specter is piracy. Only it is not just Europe that is spooked, but the entire economic world.

There may be good reason for fear. As information has become the key commodity in the globalized economy, so control and management of that commodity have vastly increased in overt importance. In the nineteenth century, raw materials and manufacturing capability seemed to hold the key to economic power; now it is knowledge and imaginative creativity that are everywhere acknowledged as crucial. Piracy is the biggest threat to this emerging economic order. There is only one charge that all players in the globalization game, from radical environmentalists to officials of the World Trade Organization, level at their respective foes, and that charge is piracy.

Piracy is generally defined as the violation of intellectual property. But that apparently simple definition entails much more than is evident at first sight. For one thing, piracy can embrace not just the piecemeal theft of individual copyrights and patents, but a repudiation of the very doctrines on which such properties rest. Furthermore, the implications of piracy can even extend beyond the letter of copyright and patent law, to affect the nature of property itself. At that point, piracy impinges on the basic, mundane practices by which ideas are made, circulated, and put to use. It is at this level where the real reason for piracy’s current prominence is to be found, for the fundamentals of the relationship between creative work and commerce lie here. When proponents of stringent intellectual property regimes confront the growing backlash against their beliefs, the result will be felt at this, the level of routine, workaday life. In short, their conflict looks set to redefine the conditions of creativity itself. That is the common thread that ties together all the piracy debates over gene patents, software, proprietary drugs, and digital downloading.

  ajohns, 04.09.05

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