The Elizabethan Book Pirates

report's cover (AFP/Getty)

A month or so ago, the Social Science Research Council published the epic report, Media Piracy in Emerging Economies. It’s distributed under a Consumer Dilemma license, part of which states that it’s:

  • US$8 for non-commercial use in high-income countries—a list that for the present purposes includes the USA, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Israel, Singapore, and several of the Persian Gulf States (Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Brunei, and Bahrain), but not Canada.
  • Free for non-commercial use outside the above-listed high-income countries.*

* means that for once having a Brazilian IP address actually helped me out–unlike if I were to attempt other forms of IP legitimate access via iTunes or Netflix.

The license goes on to define its terms before cheekily ending with “For those who must have it for free anyway, you probably know where to look.”

These 440 pages are almost a “BRIC” report; it focuses on Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa with shorter chapters on Bolivia, Mexico and history of book piracy. My favorite chapters were Lawrence Liang and Ravi Sundaram‘s on India and Bodó Balázs’ “Coda: A Short History of Book Piracy.”

Google's best attempt for the search Victorian Book Pirates

Partly because “the Elizabethan Book Pirates” sounds so damn catchy, here is a lengthy excerpt:

“In sixteenth century England, Elizabeth I granted monopoly privileges to select publishers over such basic texts as the Bible, alphabet books, almanacs, books of grammar, and law books. These steady-selling, high-volume texts were exceptionally valuable to publishers. Many of the smaller publishers were locked out of these lucrative markets, making it very difficult to earn a living, raise capital, buy manuscripts, or secure copyrights. With rights to the best texts doled out as political favors, this period saw the emergence of a class of impoverished printers, struggling to stay in business with more obscure texts.

Tensions between wealthy and poor printers increased over time and eventually degenerated into a publishing war. Poor publishers began to pirate protected books in large numbers and militate for a more egalitarian distribution of privileges. Because the prices of authorized copies were kept high, the black-market book trade was very profitable. Even in a context of high risk in which homes of suspected pirates were routinely searched, illegally printed copies confiscated, and printing machines destroyed, illegal publishing proved impossible to suppress.

Roger Ward’s case illustrates the scale of the conflict. In 1581/2, Ward confessed to illegally printing 10,000 alphabet books—a massive number in an era in which 1,500 copies was considered a large print run (Judge 1934:48–49). Other records cite similar figures: 4,000 psalm books printed in a ten-month period; 10,000 more alphabet books printed in eight months. Another record of the work of eleven printers lists 10,000 alphabet books and 2,000 psalm books printed and sold in less than a year. Such sales were significant enough to seriously disrupt the legal market.”                                          (Balázs 402-403)

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2 Responses to The Elizabethan Book Pirates

  1. Siobhan says:

    That’s fascinating. I never knew about Elizabethan book piracy. Do you have any suggestions for further reading.

    • I haven’t done a lot of research in the area. Hence, the best references I have seem to come from this chapter itself. These two jumped out at me.

      Johns, Adrian. 2010. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago
      Judge, C. B. 1934. Elizabethan Book-Pirates. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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