Pirates of the Press: Case Studies in the Prehistory of Copyright

Adam V Doskey, Lori Humphrey Newcomb

Research output: Other contribution


What do book pirates steal? Unlike buccaneers who plunder treasure from travelers, press-pirates seize reprinting rights from other publishers. In sixteenth-century England, Thomas Dekker first gave the name ‘pirates’ to those booksellers who navigated the dangerous waters of intellectual property by selling in-demand titles under false pretenses. Pirates operated even though London’s Worshipful Company of Stationers closely guarded booksellers’ privileges to print, known as ‘copies.’ Raids on the English book trade escalated until 1709, when a royal statute rescued writers and publishers by arguing that ‘copyright’ accrued always from a work to its author. The 1709 Copyright Act was 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, and book pirate bots trawl the digital seas. Co-Curated by UIUC Professor of English Lori Newcomb and RBML Curator of Rare Books Adam Doskey, the Fall exhibition in RBML explores 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. Exhibits include examples of pirated works, books printed with false publisher information, and even a manuscript composed by a real, high-seas pirate that was itself pirated.
Original languageEnglish (US)
TypeExhibition catalog
PublisherThe Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Number of pages2
StatePublished - Sep 2015


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