Adrian Johns

Current Research


In 2010 I completed a big book on the history of piracy - the intellectual-property kind, not the seaborne (although they are, it turns out, related). It extends from the Renaissance to the present, and from early printed books to digital movies. The book is entitled Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, and appeared from the University of Chicago Press. You can find the Pressís website for it here, and Amazonís here. There is a Bibliography online here.

I also recently published Death of a pirate: British Broadcasting and the Origins of the Information Age (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010). The book focuses on a shooting in 1960s Britain that brought to a head the challenge of pirate radio stations to the public broadcasting monopoly held by the BBC. From this starting-point it expands to address the politics of broadcasting, culture, and public authority that lay behind the incident. It also outlines the role of pirate media in the emergence of neoliberalism, with connections to todayís digital culture. The pressís site is here, and Amazonís is here.


Future projects:

I have a range of projects in the planning stage, and it is not yet clear which of them will be pursued in earnest. For example:

The Intellectual Property Defense Industry. This would take off from the last chapter of Piracy, which argued that what is distinctive about todayís IP world is the emergence of a coherence global industry devoted to policing intellectual property. We know almost nothing about this industry Ė its size, scope, culture, and history. This project would seek to remedy that by providing an in-depth account, including close-quarters studies of IP police in action.


The Science of Reading. This would look at how experimental scientists have tried to understand what happens when we read, starting with the early psychology laboratories in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century and extending into the present. The story relates to how Americans have been taught to read for generations, and to the design of information systems in the modern day (among other things).


Pharmacopoeias: print, authenticity, and modernity. A project on half a millennium of efforts to police the identity of substances (medicaments, foods, colors, etc.) by deploying the power of print. The hypothesis is that pharmacopoeias, the genre of works that sought to guarantee substances by fixing their formulae in print, pose a fundamental problem about modernity itself. They have never really worked, except through the mediation of powerful but inscrutable policing practices. Their history enables us to see both where the power of print really resides and how the stability of both texts and substances came to be taken for granted in modern society.


A Historical Anthropology of Scientific Reading. This would be a large-scale project to provide a taxonomy of reading practices in the sciences at the current moment of their transformation. It would be designed to furnish the first overall classification of these reading practices, and also to explain how they arose historically. Realistically, the project would be beyond any one investigator, so I envisage it as a long-term collective endeavor.

Mr Smith goes to Tokyo. A project on Erasmus Peshine Smith, an American political economist, lawyer, and (at one point) natural scientist who was recruited by the Meiji Emperor of Japan to become his advisor on trade and foreign affairs in the 1870s. Living in the imperial quarters at a time when other Westerners were largely restricted to Yokohama, Smith had unique access to the emperorís household, and seems to have used it to advise policies in radical opposition to those preferred by Washington and London. The result was a scandal with repercussions that extended to the bases of colonialism, the slave trade, and economic liberalism. Smithís private papers have survived unseen, and I hope to use them to tell this story for the first time.