It’s no secret that the Chinese nomenklatura likes to keep secrets when it comes to maintaining control over the multitudes, with one of the most sophisticated schemes of IP management in the world (largely implemented from US-based suppliers). Or, not at all inconsistently, that they stand at or near the top of league tables in IP piracy (if this were an Olympic sport…).
What is news to me is that none of this is news. In Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield recounts an episode from the 10th century involving calendars. Yes, calendars:
At the start of every Chinese dynasty, the imperial astronomers were instructed to calculate a new calendar to show the emperor’s understanding of, and harmony with, the natural order. If, however, portents appeared, then it could be taken as a sign that the astronomers themselves had made a mistake and that their calculations did not accord with the situation prevailing in the cosmic sphere.
Accordingly, ,the activities of astronomers and the production of calendars were carefully monitored at the highest levels. Only imperially appointed astronomers were allowed to produce calendars, which were then distributed to the provinces. Nevertheless, unofficial calendars, called almanacs, continued to be produced, as a memorial of 835 noted: ‘In the princes of
... The Tang dynasty’s attempt to monopolize production of the official calendar stemmed from economic as much as political motives: the calendar was essential for all officials and popular among the rest of the population, and the production of pirate copies denied the state considerable income from sales. After 835 it was stipulated, in what is almost certainly the oldest publication ordinance in the world, that the private printing of calendars by local administrations and their private possession.
Evidently the Tang administration had no better luck than its successors in pursuing IP piracy:
[T]he law was flouted, as the almanac from the Chinese capital held in the monastery library of Dunhuang clearly shows. It was produced by a family firm of printers in the Eastern Market of Chang’an, right under the noses of the emperor and his high officials whose palaces and villas abutted the market.
—Susan Whitfield, Life Along the
Whitfield doesn’t disclose the penalty for trafficking in contraband calendars. Presumably it wasn’t pretty, but apparently not severe enough to defeat the traffic.
Update: Apparently Whitfield herself recognizes the parallel. Searching for more information on her investigations, I stumbled on this paper about the changing nature of scholarship in the digital age. The title is "Enjoy It While it Lasts: A Brief Golden Age of Freedom of Scholarly Information," which gives you the general age (it bears a publication date of October 2000).
The Internet has provided a genuine revolutionary leap in terms of access to information. It has confounded the censor and has enabled lone, unfashionable and eccentric voices to be heard. These are qualities which should be welcomed by the scholarly community. Yet this community is no different from others in tending towards a comfortable and exclusive conservativism, concerned, above all, to protect its members rights and to exclude those who threaten the community, either from within or without.
The history of academic censorship has not only seen restrictions imposed from outside. The community is, dismayingly, all too often complicit, with self-censorship not uncommon. . . .
It is probably not coincidental that just as the Internet was offering scholars a revolution in the free expression and dissemination of ideas a new mood of scholarly possessiveness - expressed through the concept of 'intellectual property rights'- also started to gain momentum (see W3C Intellectual Property Rights Overview). And this way danger lies. The past few years have already seen an increase in litigation by those claiming that others have stolen their ideas - whether these be songs, scientific theories or film treatments. This has been accompanied by an increasing drive to register exclusive ownership. And it is not only the ownership of ideas which has come under increasingly legal scrutiny in the last decade. Human genes, images of ordinary building and of major collections of artworks are all becoming subject to property laws. These developments are direct threats to the new scholarly freedoms offered by the Internet.
The jury is still out about which side will prevail. Will the Internet revolution continue to threaten those who wish, for whatever purpose, to control information? The scholarly community - for its own well-being if nothing else - ought to side with the revolutionaries, but its past history and inherent conservativism suggests that it may end up in a devil's alliance with business to ensure that ownership is restricted.