"Pirate" Publishing: The Battle Over Perpetual Copyright in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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Shoji Yamada, 2012 - History - 152 pages

In 1774, Edinburgh “pirate publisher” Alexander Donaldson boldly challenged a group of major London booksellers who sought to monopolize the right to copy books in perpetuity. Why is there a time limit on copyright? This book goes back to the beginning on this question by focusing on a pivotal eighteenth-century court debate in England from a social and cultural point of view. Its historical investigation of the issues of copyright is based on detailed documentary research.

The book explores the relationships among the booksellers, lawyers, members of the nobility, and writers who formed the backdrop to the eighteenth-century publishing industry, a backdrop that offers many insights in considering the issues of copyright today. It is also a history of publishing culture, introducing the ideas and debates about literary works prevailing at that time and the people who figured in those debates.

“It is difficult to treat ‘monopoly’ or ‘piracy’ as a clear dichotomy of good and bad,” writes Yamada in his conclusion. “Both were ultimately acting in the pursuit of economic gain, and both claimed to either represent the rights of authors or the convenience of readers to defend their own position. This book tries to illustrate how their head-on clash in the courtroom, intertwined with the interpersonal relationships among lawyers and judges. This approach may seem curious to scholars of law who may be interested primarily in a detailed analysis of the logical structure of court debates. I am convinced, however, that matters not to be found in the courtroom debates alone can show us the forces that set history in motion.”

Copyright is an artificial thing, which was born out of the pulsing magma that was the emergence of modern society. Today in the twenty-first century, once again society is undergoing great changes wrought by advances in digital technology and the development of global capitalism. Renewed debate over copyright is indispensable. A parable for the digital media era, this book’s examination of the historic case of Donaldson offers valuable hints as we develop our ownstance on the issues of copyright.


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About the author (2012)

Yamada Shōji is a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken). His specialties are the informatics and the history of cultural exchange. After acquiring a B.A. and a M. Med. Sci. at Tsukuba University, he earned a Ph.D. from Kyoto University. Yamada worked for four years at IBM-Japan, then took a position as research assistant at Tsukuba College of Technology. He was appointed as an associate professor at Nichibunken in 1996. Yamada is the author of fourteen books, the most recent of which are Nihon no chosakuken wa naze konna ni kibishii no ka (Why Japanese Copyright Is So Severe: Jinbun Shoin, 2011); Komonzu to bunka: Bunka wa dare no mono ka (Commons and Culture: Who Owns Culture?: Tōkyōdō Shuppan, 2010); Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West (The University of Chicago Press and Nichibunken, 2009).

“Lynne E. Riggs is a professional translator and editor based in Tokyo. WithTakechi Manabu, she translates mainly nonfiction works through their company, the Center for Intercultural Communication. She served as managing editor of Monumenta Nipponica 1997 to 2009 and coordinating editor of the Society for Writers, Editors, and Translators SWET Newsletter from 2004 to 2012. She has taught Japanese-to-English translation at International Christian University since 2000.”

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