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The Book as Intellectual Property: 17th Century

Local and imperial authorities continued to control printing privileges into the 17th century. However legislation in many countries began to formalize copyright protection. For instance, a 1603 decree called for a term of twenty years on books first published in Venice.

Over the next century, the laws became increasingly detailed and complicated. The Stationers' Company continued to maintain control in England throughout much of the 17th century.

John Milton

areoJohn Milton (1608-1674) was an author best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost and his thoughts on the importance of freedom and self-determination.

Frustrated by the 1643 act prohibited printing or importing without the consent of the owner and renewed the order that all books must be registered with the Stationers' Company, Milton wrote Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parliament of England defending freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

He gained international recognition for his work.

The image on the right is the title page to Areopagitica.

readSkim Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parlament of England by John Milton. Written in 1644, this work is written in opposition to censorship and specifically licensing. It defends the principle of freedom of speech and expression.

John Bunyan

pilgrimJohn Bunyan (1628-1688) was an English Christian author. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress was a work of fiction and precursor to the novel. Published in 1678, it was immediately a bestseller. John Bunyan viewed his work as much more than fiction using extensive marginal notes to make explanations and references to the Bible. An uneducated Baptist minister, Bunyan was accused of plagiarism. However he claimed to have been divinely inspired.

The rights to The Pilgrim's Progress were registered by Bunyan's Publisher, Nathaniel Ponder. According to Simonova (2012, 4)

"following the Restoration, the Licensing Act of 1662 had tied entry in the Register, which protected a copy against piracy, with state censorship overseen by the Surveyor of the Press, Roger L'Estrange. Such censorship was potentially an issue for the book, given Bunyan's own periods of imprisonment and the fact that some of his previous publishers had faced prosecution for disseminating nonformist texts. However... no difficulties seem to have arisen about the licensing."

The image on the right shows the title page to the first edition of Pilgrim's Progress.

Between 1679 and 1685 a lapse of the Licensing Act allowed more press freedom, but also allowed pirated copies of Bunyan's works to be published. In the fourth edition of The Pilgrim's Progress (1680), an advertisement from the book seller complained about this piracy stating

"The Pilgrims Progress, having sold several Impressions, and with good Acceptation among the People, (there are some malicious men of our profession, of lewd principles, hating honesty, and Coveting other mens rights, and which we call Land Pirates, one of this society is Thomas Bradyl a Printer, who I found Actually printing my Book for himself."

The Licensing Act Ends

In 1694, the Licensing Act operated by the Stationers' Company expired leaving no copyright protection. Although this allowed those who had previously been denied a license the opportunity to publish, it also enabled pirating.

Between 1695 and 1709, pirating became common. As a result, authors and publishers joined together to petition Parliament for copyright protection.

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) was concerned with both intellectual property as well as censorship issues. He felt that authors had natural property rights to their own ideas. In his 1690 work Second Treatise Locke wrote

“every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.”

Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) stated that divine revelation played no role in knowledge construction. Instead, he felt that knowledge came from the senses working upon nature.

Locke wrote a "Memorandum" concerning the renewal of the Licensing Act. Written to a member of Parliament around 1694, the document was published by Locke's cousin Peter King in 1830.

readRead Locke's 1694 Memorandum (And More Incomplete Copyright Historiographies) with introduction by Justin Hughes. Do you think Locke's views are unique or are they a reflection of the thoughts of many during this time period? Why? IUPUI students can view the article online.
You can read the original from King's (1830) book.


Piracy has been a problem since the beginning of book production. In Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Adrian Johns (2010) states that during the 17th century, the term piracy became associated with "intellectual purloining".

According to Johns (1998, 32), the term piracy was coined by John Fell, bishop of Oxford

"to describe the rapacious practices of London printers and booksellers. It had a technical meaning: a pirate was someone who indulged in the unauthorized reprinting of a title recognized to belong to someone else by the formal conventions of the printing and bookselling community. But it soon came to stand for a wide range of perceived transgressions of civility emanating from print's practitioners."

Johns notes that by the end of the century the word is prominent in the writings of Addison, Congreve, Defore, Gay, Ward, and Pope begin used to describe someone who unjustly copies another's work. Johns pinpoints the use as beginning around 1660-1680 during the English Revolution. According to Adrian Johns (1998, 5),

"if an early modern reader pick up a printed book - De Natura Libri, perhaps - then he or she could not be immediately certain that it was what it claimed to be, and its proper use might not be so self-evident. Piracy was again one reason: illicit uses of the press threatened the credibility of all printed products. More broadly, ideas about the correct ways to make and use books varied markedly from place to place and time to time. But whatever the cause, it is not easy for us to imagine such as realm, in which printed records were not necessarily authorized or faithful."

Although most people are aware of the economic loss from piracy, Johns (1988) noted that allegations of piracy also threatened the reputations of authors and the credibility of their ideas.

"Piracy and plagiarism occupied readers' minds just as prominently as fixity and enlightenment. Unauthorized translations, epitomes, imitations, and other varieties of "impropriety" were, they believed, routine hazards. Very few noteworthy publications seemed to escape altogether from such practices, and none at all could safely be regarded as immune a priori. It was regarded as extremely unusual for a book professing knowledge - from lowly almanacs to costly folios - to be published in the relatively unproblematic manner we now assume... If piracy was as widespread as commonly feared, then trusting any printed report without knowledge of those processes could be rash. Profound problems of credit thus attended printed materials of all kinds. Without solutions there could be few meaningful uses for books - and perhaps no durable reasoning from them" (Johns, 1998, 30).

If you're interested in learning more about the idea of literary piracy, skim Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns.


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