News & Reviews

Terms of Infringement: Battling Intellectual Piracy

Posted: Jan 21, 2010

While reading Piracy, Adrian Johns’s lucid but episodic history of the theft of words and ideas, I learnt that the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant once wrote an essay, little known today, explaining why it was unethical to counterfeit books. Since I was at home rather than a library when I encountered this fact, I turned to Google Books to satisfy my curiosity, and soon found there a scan of the essay’s first English translation, dated 1798. It turns out that Kant didn’t think that an author could mount a strong legal case against piracy based on property rights in words. After all, even after pirates copied an author’s words, the author himself still had them. It was better for an author to argue that his book was not an object but an exercise of his powers which “he can concede, it is true, to others, but never alienate”. In other words, Kant explained – in a passage partly obscured by the fingers of the Google technician who turned the pages in the scanner – a pirated book was not to be understood as property that had been stolen; it was rather a speech act that had been compromised. The business arrangement that an author made with an editor might make it look as if words could be traded like watches or pork bellies, but it just wasn’t so.

From Caleb Crain’s review of Piracy in The National.

Read the review