Weird Wednesdays: The Publisher Pirate of London

 A publishing company's workers on a printing press. John Wolfe was a notorious copyright infringer among 16th century publishers. Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons (with modification).

A publishing company's workers on a printing press. John Wolfe was a notorious copyright infringer among 16th century publishers. Photo credit to Wikimedia Commons (with modification).

Of all the pirates who conquered riches in 16th Century England, none were so notorious as John Wolfe. He stole. He scarpered. He enraged dozens of companies and defied her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I herself.

John Wolfe was certainly a man for the books. And of the books, in fact; for Wolfe was not a pirate of the seas, but a pirate of publishing.

Much like today’s copyright laws, back in Elizabethan England certain publishing companies held exclusive rights to publish certain content. Printing companies, through use of the printing press, could buy, sell and trade rights and patents, though some rights would always stay exclusive to one company or individual.

The Royal Printer, for example, was the only printer allowed to print the Bible—which allowed for government control over the production and distribution of the Holy Book.

This presents issues. Publishers could more or less maintain a monopoly over what was and what wasn’t printed. Though they could bend their prices according to market demand, they alone could control how and where the books were sold—and at what cost.

Enter John Wolfe. The poor son of an English fishmonger, Wolfe was apprenticed to publisher John Day at the age of 14 in approximately 1562. There he learned the basics of printing, typesetting and bookbinding—though not for long. Though apprenticeships usually last 10 years (and you think college is bad!) Wolfe left after seven, citing his father’s health as the reason for his departure.

Wolfe ended up in Florence a while later, printing religious poems (legally, for the time being). The publisher soon set his sights to bigger fish as he began to print copies of the Geneva Bible—a right that should have been held exclusively by the Queen’s Printer Christopher Barker.

One or two books isn’t much of a biggie. However, Wolfe’s activities (and, if you were to listen to Barker, the poor printing quality of his reproductions) became numerous enough for a cease and desist letter to be sent.

It didn’t really do much. Wolfe kept printing—and soon turned to other works, including a book on Latin Grammar. Barker was persistent in his demands that Wolfe stop publishing, at one point calling his antics “Machiavellian devices.”

Wolfe was eventually called before the Privy Council (which dealt in mainly trade secrets, not bathroom stuff) which he ignored. According to reports, he had expanded his circle of confederates in piracy to include another printer, a bookbinder, a bookseller, a lawyer and a composer (because whoever said music piracy was a crime of the modern age?).

Though a few stints in jail made Wolfe (seemingly) remorseful, his actions did not reflect his words. A 1583 raid found several printing presses (some hidden behind walls and vaults) in the basement of one of Wolfe’s properties, with several more scattered throughout London. At one point, it was figured that he owned one-fifth of all printing presses in the city (which would be like owning one-fifth of the world’s oil refineries).

Eventually, Wolfe surrendered after numerous raids and arrests, and conceded to transfer his labor to the Stationer’s Company. Still retaining his rebellious streak, Wolfe spent part of his time printing psalts (which is psalm sheet music, as opposed to ppeppers) published by (ironically) his former master John Day.

Even more ironically, after Day’s death, his son assigned the sole rights of the psalt printings to Wolfe. Rising through the ranks of the Stationer’s Company, Wolfe began to ferment into the unfortunate middle-management type (think Lumbergh, á là “Office Space”) and eventually became a champion of the system he once railed against, attacking publishing pirates.

Like a dastardly privateer, Wolfe used his skills and contacts from his pirating days to track down and root out other patent infringers—including one of his former partners-in-crime, Robert Waldegrave. By the time of his death, Wolfe was named London’s City Printer and weeded out illegal printing wherever it cropped up.

It’s a sad ending, for sure. Though we can learn from this: information theft is as old as it gets. Stay salty, m’hearties—and stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.