J. Edgar Hoover’s 50-Year Career of Blackmail, Entrapment, and Taking Down Communist Spies


The © symbol (or “Copyright”) is a completely forgettable character ignored by all but lawyers. It is buried at the bottom of legal notices that your brain reflexively skips over. But this little symbol represents a war that has raged for centuries between authorities that want to restrict dangerous information, publishers that want to profit by it, artists that want to stop plagiarists, and open-information activists that want to make everything public domain.


In this episode I look at the history of copyright, the battle over how much information should cost. What is the line between protecting the rights of publishers and artists so they can make a living, and depriving society of crucial information and sentencing them to ignorance and illiteracy?

The battle includes

  • Venetian Printer Aldus Manutius, who invented Italic font in 1500s Venice. He complained of French plagiarists, who copied his techniques in order to trick book buyers, even though “[t]he lettering, upon closer inspection, betrays a certain Frenchiness” and were “produced on foul paper, ‘with [a] strange odor.”
  • Miguel Cervantes, who battled unauthorized sequels to Don Quixote by inserting those characters into his actual sequel and mocking them.
  • England’s Statue of Anne, the first copyright law that inadvertently led to a cartel of London book publishers who artificially limited production and drove book prices through the roof
  • America’s lax prosecution of illegal printers of British literature, leading to a boom in education
  • Aaron Swartz’s 2010 hack of MIT’s network in order to illegally download five million academic articles and “liberate” them to the Internet


Bailey, Jonathan. “How Don Quixote Handled an Unauthorized Sequel.” Plagiarism Today (blog), May 18, 2015.

Buccafusco, Christopher, and Paul J. Heald. “Do Bad Things Happen When Works Enter the Public Domain?: Empirical Tests of Copyright Term Extension.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, August 15, 2012.

Clegg, Cyndia Susan. “Joseph Lowenhttps://lfb.org/market-failure-the-case-of-copyright/stein. The Author’s Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2002.

Deazley, Ronan, Martin Kretschmer, and Lionel Bently. Privilege and Property: Essays on the History of Copyright. Open Book Publishers, 2010.

Fishchman-Afori, Orit. “The Evolution of Copyright Law and Inductive Speculations as to Its Future.” Journal of Intellectual Property Law 19 (2012 2011): 231.

May, Christopher. “The Venetian Moment: New Technologies, Legal Innovation and the Institutional Origins of Intellectual Property.” Prometheus 20 (June 1, 2002): 159–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/08109020210138979.

Peters, Justin. “No Place to Hack.” Slate, January 12, 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2016/01/aaron_swartz_misjudged_mit_an_excerpt_from_the_idealist_by_justin_peters.html.

———. The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Tucker, Jeffrey. “Market Failure? The Case of Copyright.” Laissez Faire, April 3, 2012. .

Witt, Stephen. “‘The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet,’ by Justin Peters.” The New York Times, January 8, 2016, sec. Sunday Book Review. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/books/review/the-idealist-aaron-swartz-and-the-rise-of-free-culture-on-the-internet-by-justin-peters.html.

Cite This Article
"The Quest to Make Information Free Forever: Copyright Battles From Venetian Printers in the Renaissance to 21st Century Hackers" History on the Net
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