Pirates of the Press:
Case Studies in the Prehistory of Copyright
18 September — 18 December 2015
What do book pirates steal? Unlike buccaneers who plunder treasure from travelers, pirates of the press seize reprinting rights from other publishers.
In the prehistory of copyright, printers and booksellers sometimes navigated the dangerous waters of intellectual property by selling popular titles under false pretenses. In the British Isles, pirates operated even though London’s Worshipful Company of Stationers tried to closely guard booksellers’ privileges to print, known as ‘copies.’ Raids on the English book trade escalated until 1709, when a royal statute rescued writers and printers by arguing that ‘copyright’ accrued always from a work to its author. The 1709 Copyright Act became a landmark in literary history and international property law, although it never entirely stopped piracy, especially across regional and national boundaries. The problem resurfaces today: as global media companies amass rights formerly held by authors, book pirates trawl digital seas.
Our exhibition sails the trade routes of early modern England and beyond, exploring the colorful lives of certain nefarious booksellers, the various means of identifying piracies, and the lasting impact of piracy on literary authorship and intellectual property law.
Adam Doskey, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts
Lori Humphrey Newcomb, Associate Professor of English