Adrian Johns

 

On his book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

Cover Interview of May 10, 2010

A close-up

On page 343 one meets Frederick Willetts, the self-proclaimed Pirate King of Edwardian London.  In the early years of the twentieth century, Willetts ran a “People’s Music Publishing Company” in East London that issued pirated popular music in millions of copies, distributing it across the country.

The music industry employed its own private army of “commandoes” to track him down, which they eventually succeeded in doing, but not before the industry had effectively ceased publishing songs in protest at his effects.

What is remarkable is that when Parliament launched an inquiry into pirated music, Willetts volunteered to come to Westminster and testify.  This is, I think, the only time in history when a self-proclaimed pirate has shown up at a center of power and mounted an explicit, populist defense of piracy itself.

Willetts’s case bears examination, because many of the elements of later music pirates, including the digital ones, can be seen in embryo in his declarations.  For example, he condemned the orthodox industry as monopolistic, hidebound, and dedicated to elite customers at the expense of the working class.  And he proposed market segmentation as an appropriate way forward—another line that has been revived in recent years.

Willetts’s bravado gesture—which did him little good, incidentally, as he was jailed shortly after—exemplifies the point that major convictions of today can be traced back to controversies about piracy in previous decades.  It throws unfamiliar light on the familiar, and encourages us to rethink our assumptions about what is permanent and what changeable.  And Willetts himself exemplifies the kind of colorful personality that Piracy repeatedly finds at the heart of these controversies.

Piracy is really full of stories; this is but one favorite.