Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates; Against Intellectual Monopoly

In This Review

Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates
By Adrian Johns
University Of Chicago Press, 2010
640 pp. $35.00
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Against Intellectual Monopoly
By Michele Boldrin,David K. Levine
Cambridge University Press, 2010
306 pp. $19.99
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The first use of the term "piracy" to refer to the theft of intellectual property was in seventeenth-century England, and today it can mean anything from bootlegging a DVD to reproducing patented drugs. Johns, a historian, has written an erudite treatment of the origin and evolution of this type of piracy. Offering a dispassionate account of the interaction between the illegal diffusion of intellectual property and its defense, he observes that this evolution continues. The whole idea of intellectual property, he even speculates, may well end within the foreseeable future.
In Against Intellectual Monopoly, the economists Boldrin and Levine argue boldly and forthrightly that patents and copyrights are unnecessary evils -- legal monopolies without merit -- and should be abolished altogether. Remarkably, they have found no empirical evidence that patents and copyrights live up to their stated rationale of encouraging discovery and literary production (which is not to say that there might not be particular examples). They do find a great deal of evidence, however, that the introduction of patents and copyrights actually inhibits discovery and innovation -- and even discouraged musical composition in the United Kingdom of the nineteenth century. That these laws have been foisted on poor countries by Europe and the United States through international trade negotiations is a matter of serious concern for the authors.