Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Digital Ethics #8

(Note: This article is part of a series I started on my BrettStuff website so, if you want to read the previous articles, pay it a visit).

Theft has existed since organisms began competing for resources. In fact, the act of stealing is an evolutionary advantage for individual creatures – why go to the trouble of finding, killing or growing stuff, when you can filch the result from some other hard-working idiot? However, theft is destructive to societies. For this reason communities of all eras and cultures have instituted heavy penalties for all forms of stealing.

What constitutes stealing is also an ancient issue. And as societies developed, the definition of theft has been refined and extended. However, the arena of 'intellectual property' has always been difficult to define.

Two (linked) historical developments made the concept of intellectual property a significant issue.

The expansion of trade between European cities and the appearance of non-church universities in the 12th and 13th centuries produced a literate and educated group of people who were interested in accumulating and exchanging information. This typically took the form of handwritten manuscripts, and a new trade emerged called 'stationery' where people would (for a fee) produce handwritten copies of your publication. The largest patrons of stationers were libraries (you paid to visit a library in those days), eager to stock the widest range of contemporary texts.

Hand-copying of books was slow and costly. The man most often credited with changing this is Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), a metalworker and inventor, who devised a method for casting individual metal letters, setting them in blocks, applying a thin film of ink to their surface, and transferring this ink to sheets of paper.

Gutenberg didn’t invent printing - China and East Asia had libraries with thousands of books printed using hand-carved wooden blocks as early as the 12th century - but he did refine and commercialise the process.

Gutenberg's presses led to a boom in the production of texts in Europe. His most famous work, the Gutenberg Bible sold for the 'bargain' price of 300 florins a copy. This was still the equivalent of 3 year's wages for an average citizen, but a lot cheaper than a handwritten Bible, which could take a scribe as long as 20 years to produce!

Printing revolutionised the distribution of knowledge by making it possible to produce a large number of copies of a single work at a reasonable cost in a relatively short amount of time. In fact one of the (not very snappy) names used for printing at the time was ‘the art of multiplying books’.

The process spread to other German cities by the 1450s, to Italy in the 1460s, and then to France and the rest of Europe. The rapid spread of knowledge made possible by Gutenberg's printing press contributed to the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Protestant Reformation. For this reason, Gutenberg was chosen by Time Magazine as the 'Man of the Millennium'.

In the next installment we’ll look at some of the consequences of Gutenberg’s new toy.

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