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What Elizabethan book pirates in the 1500s can teach us about piracy today

Try to identify the time period: a few tightly controlled companies have complete control over publishing, so piracy emerges. Some of these pirates are idealistic, and some just want to make a buck, but they're all focused on illegally disseminating some of the world's most popular media. And in the end, publishers have to make drastic changes to adapt.

That might describe the music, movie, or book industry today. But it also perfectly describes book publishing in Elizabethan England in the mid-1500s.

Back then, piracy was rampant — and for a simple reason. After the invention of the printing press in 1440, many countries restricted which printers could print which books. In England, Queen Elizabeth I gave certain printers a monopoly over key books like the Bible, the alphabet, almanacs, and other foundational texts.

That created a big rift between publishers with rights and those that lacked them. So some printers simply flouted the queen and did the only thing they could to keep their business afloat: they became pirates.

Elizabethan book pirates copied religious books and made fan fiction

Philip Sidney, author of Arcadia and a likely piracy victim.

Philip Sidney, author of Arcadia and a likely piracy victim. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

Cyril Bathurst Judge chronicled many of the more colorful Elizabethan book pirates in his 1934 book.

One pirate, John Wolfe, began printing books illegally in the 1580s (he only had the licenses for some books, like A Defence of the Olde and True Christianitie, but printed plenty of others for which he didn't). He was thrown in prison in 1582 but quickly got out and continued his underground operations, relying on a reserve of presses and secret vaults to store books. Wolfe was an idealist who believed the queen didn't have the right to regulate what printers could or couldn't print. He even called himself the Martin Luther of printing.

Roger Ward was even bolder, distributing pirated books by selling them off to partners, international booksellers, and people around London (later, he hid some of his books in a henhouse to try to evade capture). Complainants said that Ward and others pirated almost 100 different books, and Ward went to prison for it on and off through the 1580s, before finally getting out of the game in the 1590s.

The book pirates were particularly interested in reprinting religious books, because they were the big sellers: in the late 1570s and early 1580s, Roger Ward printed 10,000 copies of the A.B.C. With the Little Catechism — and that was at a time when 1,500 copies was considered a large run. Psalms and bibles were also popular pirated material.

Even Elizabethan fan fiction was popular: Scholar Natasha Simonova makes a convincing argument that many of the pirated copies of the romance Arcadia included additional stories by fans that extended the story's world.

Publishers finally managed to squelch Elizabethan piracy ... by accommodating it

A printing press circa 1600.

A printing press circa 1600. (Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Book piracy was a real problem, and Elizabethan publishers had to respond.

Some of the book pirates were simply bought off — the rebellious John Wolfe happily took a share of another printer's publishing rights and said goodbye to piracy for good. Other secret presses were bought out or closed down as printing technology and printing rights expanded. By the early 1580s, printing rights were already improving as trans-national agreements were worked out and printer's guilds expanded their ranks to include more printers.

But for years, the state still had a high level of control over printing. Something akin to our modern system finally emerged in 1710 with the Statute of Anne, which further regulated copyright but also, helpfully, gave it an expiration date. It's reasonable to say that the changes in law were an outgrowth of the public's reaction to the outdated laws that led to censorship and scarce copies of books.

Is the analogy to today's piracy battles perfect? Any attempt to compare downloads of The Dark Knight to reprints of Arcadia is going to be strained. The biggest breakpoint is in the type of media the pirates published, since many of the Elizabethan book pirates were printing books that today would be public domain.

But there are still parallels. In John Wolfe's idealism, it's easy to see the righteousness of crusaders like the founder of the online black marketplace Silk Road. More broadly, just as new legal options helped squash Elizabethan piracy, so does the availability of Netflix and Spotify, according to piracy studies. These legal options to get media are reason to see a lot of similarities between the anti-piracy measures of today and the 1600s — even if we still have a little catching up to do.