The pirate’s friend

11 March 2011 | Articles, Non-fiction

Intellectual property was hot stuff half a millennium ago, and not much has changed: Teemu Manninen takes a look at piracy and mercenaries in the age of electronic books

Sir Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke (1554–1628) by Edmund Lodge. Photo: Wikimedia

In November 1586 Fulke Greville (later 1st Baron Brooke) sent Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham a letter complaining about some ‘mercenary printers’‘ plans to print the romance novel Arcadia written by his friend (and Walsingham’s son-in-law) Sir Philip Sidney, who had died that very same year. This ‘mercenary book’ needed to be ‘stayed’, i.e. censored by the authorities, so that Sidney’s friends and relatives might take control, and also because publishing his works without consulting Greville or someone close to Sidney might damage his reputation or even his ‘religious honors’.

I rehearse this ancient tale because of its exemplary value for us today. From our point of view there seems nothing extraordinary about Greville’s actions: he is seeking to defend his friend’s literary estate from ‘mercenaries’ who steal intellectual property (IP): pirates.

But in the early days of mechanical printing, there was no such thing as a ‘literary estate’ or ‘piracy’; there were no agents, no concept of IP, no legal disputes waged over the control of an author’s oeuvre; authorship was not yet even a widely socially recognised category of real work, and copyright was something different altogether: an up-for-grabs monopoly owned by the publisher and not by the author. What more, there is no indication that Sidney himself would have ever wanted his works to see print (it is told that on his deathbed he wished for them to be burned).

So in actuality, Greville’s mission to end the piracy of Arcadia even before it had been published was a momentous moment, and the emergence of the pirate signifies the birth of the modern author. Although other works by Sidney were later piratically published, Arcadia remained (at least for a while) the property of those closest to Sidney himself; his sister later published his works in a beautiful collected edition, which paved the way for other, living authors (like Ben Jonson) to publish their collected works. In effect, it was a product of a new media technology, the ‘mercenary book’, which forced modern thinking about authorship and copyright into existence.

If you listened to the hyperbole of hype and the nagging naysayers last year, it certainly seemed like we were on the cusp of something equally new and exciting in Finland with ebooks. Many commentators painted rosy pictures of the future of publishing. Bestselling authors like Katariina Souri vilified the format and the pirates that would eat into their income.

At the same time WSOY, the largest publishing house in Finland, was in the middle of an internal power struggle between (or so it seemed) a market-oriented troupe of executives who wanted to modernise the business and the old guard with their more traditional, high-brow literary values. For some, ebooks became synonymous with this struggle, and consequently everything bad about the industry, and conservative aesthetes like Antti Nylén painted terrible pictures of a horrible future much like this one by the science fiction author Cheryl Morgan in an interview by the website SF Signal:

— in 10 years time the publishing industry will be radically different, and much more like Hollywood. The vast majority of book sales will be of a small number of titles that are incredibly expensive to produce, and most of them will involve celebrities in some way or another. What people understand by a ‘book’ will also be radically different. People will expect books to read themselves to you, and to have extensive video content. There will also be all sorts of ‘added value’ options, by which the publishers will mean opportunities for you to spend more money.

Morgan’s silly, satirical example of these added values is the ability to buy the same clothes or perfumes as the protagonists in your new ‘vooks’ are wearing. It might yet happen – but a few months after the launch of ebooks, what has really happened? Nothing. No one talks about ebooks now. It’s not even interesting as a subject in literary circles.

This might be because of the stupidity of publishers who were unable to capitalise on the launch: what we have is a classic case of too many formats and too many devices, with not enough titles and too few outlets; not one tried to take advantage of the new possibilities like embedded video or animated text; the prices of ebooks are still way too expensive, and so there is simply no reason to buy them. It’s worth a mention that some small publishers have even done the opposite. Instead of embracing ebooks as a cheap alternative, the poetry publisher Poesia has switched from print-on-demand and digital publishing (which it had pioneered in Finland) to traditional modes such as offset and even letterpress printing, citing as a reason the poor quality of pod-published books and the need to value books as works of paper art.

It could be that the real impact is yet to come. But even abroad, where the Kindle and other reading devices have actually made an impact on the industry (with large bookstore chains like Borders in the US filing for bankruptcy because of a huge drop in sales) bestselling authors like Neil Gaiman have done very well because of the new opportunities epublishing has allowed. Gaiman himself published his book American Gods online for a month, which led to a 300 per cent increase in sales.

Because of his positive experience, Gaiman is now in favor of piracy. For him, piracy is actually like lending from a library or a friend – and that, I think, is exactly what we need for ebooks to become a meaningful addition: a kind of electronic library and bookstore, something like the music service Spotify, where you pay a certain amount monthly and then can listen to as much music as you want to. I don’t know if that will happen, but what I find interesting in Gaiman’s case is that once again pirates are forcing a new kind of thinking about authorship and publication to emerge – but this time the pirate is an author’s friend, not his enemy.

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