I’ve been pondering the printing press of late. Mostly what a revolutionary communications technology it was, much like the internet is today. For better or worse, both inventions allowed ordinary people to take part in an unprecedented degree of information exchange. And both have profound implications for freedom of expression, the marketplace and the commons.
But we’ll talk about the internet some other time.
What really got me going about Gutenberg‘s gizmo, was its role in shaping Liberty. No doubt that at the time of its invention, the printing press was considered a groundbreaking device, hence its immediate popularity. Still, people were slow to grasp its true significance, and it was at first treated like any other trade technology. Individuals apprenticed to become operators of this device, and thereby established a craft around publishing. Standards were adopted piecemeal, either by decree or marketplace convention. Sometime in the 1500s, France passed a law requiring that the name of the author and “publishing house” be printed on a book’s title page. Amazing!
Then you had the public reaction to the sudden influx of information. The initial response was to believe that anything printed had the virtue of being “true.” Cervante‘s Don Quixote, which is in fact the first modern novel, lampooned this tendency by having its titular character take chivalric romances on face value. Should you think that this sounds primitive, keep in mind those rightwingers who think that Barack Obama is a Muslim baby-eater just because they read it online.
Movable type also made possible an influx of works of dubious origin, including knockoffs of other books. (Sound familiar?) Back then, if you were an author seeking to protect the integrity of your concept, you’d have to obtain a “letter of patent” from the monarch, which sanctified it much like an invention or a newly-imported good. (You could also petition the King for a trade monopoly — sort of like what our corporations currently do through campaign contributions.)
Printers and publishing houses, on the other hand, developed a self-regulated system called a registry. This was basically a ledger in which they’d log all of the books they intended to print that year. This gave their craft legitimacy, and also helped resolve disputes between publishers about who produced what volume. Over time, this evolved into something resembling a trade-based set of property rights, with registries serving as proof of a house’s ownership of entire editions. And eventually there was borne a guild which payeth men a goodly advance for the right to bowdlerize history!
To my mind, the appearance of these two quasi-licenses — trade and registry — helped initiate the movement away from royal rule.
The early version of patent was an imperfect protection for later what came to be known as “copyright.” (Today we see patent as a method to protect an invention, and an invention falls under the spectrum of intellectual property; copyright is also intellectual property, but it covers expressive ideas, like books and songs, etc.) Why the hell should one have to ask the monarch’s permission for the existence of one’s idea? Especially when there might be demand among trades in the commonwealth? That seems like an unfair limitation on one’s God-given ability to dream. Highly unreasonable!
Likewise, why should the keepers of registries be the sole executors of an idea, just because they happen to possess the means to give it shape? ‘Tis hardly fair!
A new system was necessary, in which, under specific arrangement, one’s intellectual property could join the broader marketplace of ideas. Even better if that marketplace offered incentive for monetary reward, based on demand. Best still to keep such recompense free from the tithes and taxations of King or Church!
Copyright… the commons… free markets… hmm…
These ideas were much easier to spread due to print technology itself. The next thing you knew, there were pamphleteers and political rabble-rousers espousing all kinds of wacky notions about Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. No small coincidence, then, that a wily colonial outpost decided to borrow one-and-a-quarter of these concepts to launch their own experiment in self-governance.
And here we are.
It does make you wonder whether we really have a grasp on the Information Age, or whether we’re merely being swept along by the tides of history towards a faraway shore. Perhaps someday our great-great-grandchildren will marvel at our naivete as their non-corporeal bodies drift merrily across amber waves of. . . post-metabolic cognition spectrum.
Or maybe they’ll be drinking Brawndo and watching President Trig Palin appear as a guest judge on “Chino-American Idol.”