Johns on Piracy

Johns, Adrian. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. U of Chicago P: 2009.

Part 1: To be continued in a future post…

The rise of piracy in the seventeenth century correlates with the ability to print – raising important questions about the nature of knowledge: can knowledge be authored, owned, and stolen? Interestingly, the rise of print culture coincides with the “scientific revolution,” and in fact many claim this revolution would not have been possible without this new ability to disseminate information.

In early modern times, scholars studied the relationship between words and things, which Issac Newton and his contemporaries claimed to “revolution[ize] in terms of a fundamental recasting of that relation, or even as a discarding of the former in favor of the latter.” However, even with the nature of science being to experiment with things, the results are communicated with words. Furthermore, the natural philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries still based their methodology on the reading the work of their predecessors and building new theories from their groundwork. This practice or reading and writing is obviously still the basis of scholarly inquiry across the disciplines today.

“Experimenting with print as well as nature, the experimentalists created the distant origins

of peer review, journals, and archives – the whole gallimaufry that is often taken as distinctive of science,

and that is now in question once again in the age of open access and digital distribution.”

Experimental philosophy was based on doing things, but it also relied on the acts of writing, printing, and reading. Printed texts were distributed by trade companies. The Royal Society depended on the system of printing, distributing, and then reporting and reviewing in registries to maintain their system of knowledge making. Experiments had to be witnessed by an audience of trained notetakers who wrote and registered these reports – “ideally on repeated occasions.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this practice is the “learned sociability” developed through reading these reports in public. The educated gentlemen present at Royal Society gathers brought diverse interpretations of these experimental readings that helped to solidify their findings, disseminate knowledge, and advance the rate of scientific progress. Furthermore, these reading helped to cement social bonds and sustain the community. However, the Society did not lay claim to authorship. The laborers who recorded and often read the experiments were not attributed as authors. To recognize a gentleman as an author was viewed as “immodest” and when Edward Tyler was given this title it was deemed and “allowable boldness.” These public readings became to progenitors of scholarly peer review, although at this point they were still based on “civility rather than expertise.”

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