Piracy of intellectual property is nothing new. To some, plagiarism was a problem already in first century Rome. Illegal copying of books was done long before the modern concept of copyright as a creator’s right was conceived. The right to copy during the first centuries of printing belonged to printers and booksellers (sometimes for generations), not like today when an author owns it and might or might not assign his or her rights to a publisher for a limited time.
Printers often pirated books that legally belonged to other printers. The first known instance of print piracy was probably Gutenberg’s former financier Johann Fust, who reprinted Johann Mentel’s edition of St Augustine’s De Arte Prædicatoria. A more well-known case is Martin Luther, whose works were pirated in all of the German states (and in many other countries as well). There were lots of printers who for many years made their living entirely from unlicensed printing of Luther’s works. Luther complained about this, not so much on economical grounds as because the pirated editions were sloppy and the content distorted. At this time pirates even gathered at the Frankfurt Book Fair to sell their wares.
Francis Kirkman on the title pages of his book The Unlucky Citizen (1673).
Piracy was very common, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, and not just smaller, poorer Stationers yielded to this shady custom, but even large well-established members of the Stationers Company spent some of their working hours on unlicensed printing or the printing of ”overnumbers”, that could be sold by chapmen or exchanged for other books from other printers.
Historically there are several defenders of piracy, or in German Büchernachdruck. Fichte attacked it, but the Hamburg doctor J.A.H. Reimarus defended unlicensed printing in a couple of essays. During a few trials in England in the 18th century, Justice Joseph Yates was among those who believed that ”when an author prints and publishes his work, he lays it entirely open to the public, as much as when an owner of a piece of land lays it open into the highway.” (From the case Millar v. Taylor, 4 Burr. 2364.)
There are, however, fewer depictions in literature of ”press pirates”, their lives and the tricks of their trade, although there is one (or rather two) what you might call Sittenschilderungen from 17th century: Two books by a London bookseller, Francis Kirkman, The Unlucky Citizen Experimentally Described, printed in 1673, and The English Rogue Continued, in the Life of Meriton Latroon, printed 1668 (the quotations hereinafter are from a printing made in 1671).
The Unlucky Citizen is considered to be pretty much autobiographical, whereas The English Rogue partly seems to be based on the same occurrences, but with other persons acting. The narrative of the Rogue also displays much more detail, and contains more fictitious elements. However, what is told here probably happened or could have happened, judging from other accounts of the book trade at this time. Kirkman describes how they sold pirated books with false covers:
They that came into our Shop, might by the outside of the Books, imagine that we were well furnished with Law Books according to our practice, but if they had searched their inside, they would have found their mistake, when in stead of the Statutes at large, and Cooks Reports, they should see Amadis de Gaul , and Orlando Furioso, and in stead of Brooks Abridgment, and some such old Law Books, they would have found the Mirrour of Knighthood, they would have been much mistaken when instead of Gown-men pleading at the Bar, they found Sword-men fighting at the Barriers. (Unlucky Citizen p 174.)
Kirkman was, however, set up by his partners (”those whom I thought were my friends”) and ended up in prison. According to his book this happened frequently:
My Father was sixty when he died, and lived free from all Arrests, though his Dealing were very considerable, and by that time I was arrived to half his age, had been arrested I believe sixty times. (Unlucky Citizen p 195.)
In The English Rogue, the most interesting parts from a copyright point of view are chapters XXII–XXIV, which I have just published at my copyright history site.
According to Kirkman, selling both legitimate books and illegitimate ones was the best mix; ”My Master having now had some experience in this way of printing, was resolved to play above board, and get some Copy or Copies to print, that he might own [...] now he gave Mony for his Copies, the other costing him nothing” (English Rogue  p 209.)
It was easier and cheaper to deal with unlawful copies, since it was mostly books that one already knew would sell, but the undertaking was more dangerous, of course. On the other hand, authors did not get much remuneration, but investing work in the setting up of a book by an unknown author was risky:
If a stranger came with a Copy to him, though never so good, he would tell them he had books enough already; but however, if they would give him so much money, he would do it, and they should have two, or three, or six books for themselves and friends: many a one did he thus perswade out of their mony, being desirous to be in print. If he had a desire to have any thing writ in History, Poetry, or any other Science or Faculty, he had his several Authors, who for a glass of Wine, and now and then a meals Meat and half a Crown, were his humble servants [...] (English Rogue  p 211.)
I am sure several writers or journalists of today will recognize the following: how the possibility of fame (or at least getting oneself known in the trade) is waved in front of us, when we want to be paid enough for what we write. Maybe we should even pay the publisher instead of the other way around:
My Master having had a book written for him by a Poet, the Author (not having the wit to make his bargain, and know what he should have beforehand) when he had finished it, desired payment for his pains: Nay, said my master, you ought rather to pay me for printing it, and making you famous in print. Well then, said the Author, if you will not give me money, I hope you will give me some books. How, said my master, give you books, what will you have me forswear my Trade, and be a book-giver? I am a book-seller, and to you I will sell them assoon as to another, if you will give me money, paper and print costs money, and this was all the Author could have for his pains. (English Rogue  p 214.)
Book-exchange had for centuries been a very important means of both getting paid for books and getting books disseminated. Monks did it, during the manuscript era, and booksellers did it later with printed books. There are both similarities and differences if you compare this custom to the filesharing of today. Book-exchange included both legitimate barter and the trading of piratical editions, for instance the already mentioned ”overnumbers”:
[...] sometimes we are in fee with the Printer, procure him to print such a number over for us, which he consents to, that he may do as many for himself: and then for the manner of our selling of them, it is by Combination, Confederacy, and Correspondency, which some of us Apprentices have with each other; for we have our Warehouse as well as our Master, and are furnished with much variety; every one of the Combination bringing some quantity to this joynt-Stock, of what his Master printeth; and then as occasion serveth we furnish each other [...] (English Rogue  p 220.)
Book-exchange was also a means for a new bookseller to be able to start up with only a few titles, maybe just one, if it was an attractive book. The exchange gave him (or her in some cases) several titles to sell in the book shop. In The Rogue Kirkman also stresses the social side of book-exchange:
This business of Exchanging brings us Prentices acquainted with each other more then any thing else, for that this matter is commonly left to our management; and on this acquaintance depends the greatest part of our profit …(English Rogue  p 220.)
Book piracy also helped to undermine one of the key concepts one often hears about print as opposed to manuscripts or oral communication: that the edition is a constant which ensures that reliable knowledge is mediated. While hand-written books might differ from copy to copy, the printed edition at least ensured that the text was the same in all copies of the same printing. But both sloppy printers and binders as well as pirates who printed editions that, for instance, might contain fewer pages than the original or a false title page, all of this together made the books of that time less reliable than we may think today, used as we are to practically uniform editions. Adrian Johns writes about this in his The Nature of The Book from 1998 (for instance, p 31-32, 171-173, 183, 188).
Erasmus, who was also heavily pirated, wrote about this epistemological problem:
Formerly there was devoted to the correctness of a literary manuscript as much care and attention as to the writing of a notarial instrument. Such care and precision were held to be a sacred duty. Later, the copying of manuscripts was entrusted to ignorant monks and even to women. But how much more serious is the evil that can be brought about by a careless printer, and yet to this matter the law gives no heed.” (Introduction to Adagia, quoted in Putnam, Books and Their Makers in the Middle Ages, vol. 1, p 428.)
The English Rogue, chapters XXII–XXIV, may be read here.
See also ”Tim Bobbin’s Rap at the PYRATES” from 1773.