In 2011-12, arguments over the “Protect IP”/”Stop Online Piracy” (SOPA) bills in Congress have reignited debate about media piracy and its policing. The content industry has found itself at loggerheads with the digital technology industry, and both sides have maintained that the implications of their conflict are fundamental: depending on whom one believes, either the Internet or the creative economy may face destruction. Fierce as it has been, the debate has been both too narrow and too shallow. In fact, these contentions need to be seen as the latest manifestations of a long-term historical process that has seen policing and “piracy” pitted against each other. The place where their conflict has really occurred, moreover, is not in law and policy but in technology and everyday life. As a result, although it remains largely invisible to the public, this conflict has substantially shaped many of the everyday practices that constitute our culture of information. A reconciliation of the information society and the good society will therefore depend on our ability not just to affect legislation like SOPA, but to understand the history that lies behind such laws and drives them forward.
Adrian Johns is Allan Grant Maclear Professor in the Department of History at the University of Chicago, where he also chairs the graduate program in Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science. Prior to working at Chicago he was educated at Cambridge University and taught at Cambridge, Caltech, and UCSD. He is the author of “The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making” (1998), “Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates” (2009), and “Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age” (2010). He is currently at work on a study of the industry that has arisen to uphold information and intellectual property worldwide.
The History and Theory of New Media series is produced by the Berkeley Center for New Media with support from CITRIS (The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society). This lecture is co-sponsored with the Katharine Bixby Hotchkis Chair in English.