PIPA, SOPA, and Coffa; Or, It Didn’t Work in the 17th Century Either.

My attention was directed a few days ago by a friend (via Twitter) to a post on Common-Place, a history-themed blog sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society.  The post, by Joseph M. Adelman, is entitled “By Securing the Copies,” and draws some interesting parallels between two 18th-century American cases concerned with copyright and censorship, and the war that has been raging over SOPA and PIPA, as well as the recent judgement by the US Supreme Court that returns the protections of copyright to foreign works that had been in the public domain:

Putting modern debates into context is important. Laws restricting the circulation of information and publications have not been warmly received. Copyright has been an instrument to limit that circulation. And lastly, it was never intended to be permanent or retroactive.

The parallels that Adelman draws between SOPA/PIPA and the Stamp Act of 1765 reminded me of a rather different parallel to these two proposed bills that had occurred to me a few days ago.  In terms of social phenomena, probably the most comparable thing that 17th-century Britain had to the modern web was its coffee houses.  I have long thought that there were interesting parallels to be drawn between the function of these two phenomena; in fact, I wrote a few years ago an abortive paper (titled “You Have Been Poked,” or something equally inane) that treated coffee houses by way of analogy with online social media.  I should probably consider resuscitating that one.  Or not.

A coffee house, ca. 1674, from "A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee"

“Coffa” was an exotic Turkish drink viewed, initially, with some suspicion by patriotic Christian Englishmen, but it was a matter of only a few years following the erection of the first coffee house in London, sometime between 1652 and 1654, that similar establishments sprang up all over the city.  Restoration coffee houses were, first and foremost, social venues, and they differed from modern coffee shops in that customers sat not at small tables that could accommodate only a few friends, but on long benches that forced interaction with a diverse and broad variety of other patrons.  Conversation was general, and social interactions promiscuous.  As one broadside dating from 1674 put it:

First, Gentry, Tradesmen, all are welcome hither,
And may without Affront sit down Together:
Pre-eminence of Place, none here should Mind,
But take the next Seat that he can find:
Not need any, if Finer Persons come,
Rise up for to assigne to them his Room
(A Brief Description)

These lines suggest (even if they somewhat exaggerate) the degree to which coffee houses functioned as social sites that leveled or even “democratized” the highly-stratified society of late 17th-century Britain. In practice, coffee houses served as hubs in the literary and news networks of the time: they were clearinghouses for gossip, rumour, scandal, political news and discussion. More than this, however, they also functioned as dissemination centres for literature of all kinds, including manuscript poetry, newssheets, periodicals, and printed codices.  When news, poetry, or gossip went “viral” in the Restoration period, it was mostly usually through the agencies of the coffee houses.

This function of the coffee houses did not go unnoticed by the government of Charles II, which was concerned that these were becoming centres for the articulation of anti-government sentiment and even sedition.  In 1671 Joseph Williamson, who functioned essentially as chief intelligence officer for the government, opined “Pull down . . . coffee houses, and nothing can be more to the establishment of the government” (CSPD Charles II 11: 581), while Thomas Player, one of Williamson’s agents, commented in 1673 that “These sober clubbs produce nothing but scandalous and censorious discourses”  (Christie 2: 68).

The government had good reason to be concerned.  Opposition to the King’s ministers and his policies had been growing steadily since the mid-1660s.  In 1672, the same year as a Stop of the Exchequer signaled the government’s dire financial situation, Charles issued a Declaration of Indulgence, extending religious freedom to nonconformists; it was perceived as an attempt to sanction Roman Catholicism, and was so fiercely contested that Charles was forced to withdraw it the next year.  Parliament riposted in 1673 with a “Test Act,” which required of all office holders an oath disavowing the “truth” of transubstantiation, the immediate effect of which was to out the King’s brother and heir the Duke of York (the future James II) as a convert to Roman Catholicism.  This revelation sent shock waves of alarm through the kingdom.  The Third Dutch War, meanwhile, had concluded in a most unsatisfactory way in 1674, and rumours were beginning to circulate about the “secret” provisions of the 1670 Treaty of Dover, by which Charles II received secret funding from Louis XIV, thereby enabling him to rule without the assistance of Parliament.

By 1675, dissent had grown to alarming proportions, and was reflected in a growing tide, not merely of seditious talk, but  of anti-government satire (mostly in manuscript form) and pamphleteering.  And the focus for this increasingly vocal dissent was, as the government was beginning to recognize, the coffee houses.

At last, on 29 December 1675, the government moved, issuing A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.  The proclamation took a number of swipes at coffee houses, but in particular asserted that they were places where “divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm” (Proclamation for the Suppression).  All such establishments were ordered closed by 10 January, 1675/6.

The government’s move to shut down coffee houses caused, understandably, a great deal of consternation.  One private newsletter, written little more than a week before the measures announced in the proclamation were to take effect, noted that there had grown “a mutinous condition in this towne upon the account of coffee-howses” (Hatton Newsletter,  1 January, 1676, quoted in Ellis 92).  One probable reason for the sharp public reaction may lie in the relative effectiveness of the government’s measures to control the flow of information in printed form:  with the assistance of the Stationers’ Company, Roger L’Estrange, the Licenser of the Press, had done a fairly effective job of controlling the conventional press.  For this reason, most expressions of public dissent were circulated in manuscript, and the coffee houses had an absolutely central function in that process. Shutting down the coffee houses would have seriously fettered a public discourse that was already very tightly managed by the government.

Meanwhile, those with an economic stake in the coffee houses had began to mobilize. Led by Thomas Garraway, the proprietors of coffee houses in London issued a petition against the suppression on or about January 5. Two days later, Garraway, a “Mr. Taylor,” and Sir John Duncombe, the Chancellor of the Exchequor, but here acting as spokesman for the coffee houses, met with the Privy Council in Westminster to present their case. As Markman Ellis has noted, they argued that the proclamation caused undue hardship to law-abiding and tax-paying merchants:

The coffee-men cast themselves as merchants who obediently, legally and merely sold coffee. It was for this purpose, they reminded everyone, that they held the ‘licences’ from the magistrates, guaranteeing the payment of their Excise dutes. The law, they reasoned, recognized their place within the commercial world. As they further observed, the coffee trade paid a great deal of money in taxes and their trade was a lucrative source of revenue for the King. All this, they argued, was jeopardized by the proclamation. Furthermore, the proposed suppression of their trade would leave these poor and hard-working tradesmen in some considerable hardship: they would have great stocks of coffee left unsold, the price of which would collapse. (94)

"An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses."  London, 1676.

"An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses." London, 1676.

In the face of a mutinous public, legal and political opinion that suggested that the proclamation’s revocation of licences was unworkable or illegal, and pressure from the major “stakeholders” in the trade, the Privy Council began to reconsider  its position.  Within little more than a week of the original proclamation, on 8 January, the government issued a new Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses. The new proclamation effectively revoked the order to close coffee houses by extending permissions for these establishments for an additional six months.  (As events transpired, the 6-month deadline passed without any further action from the government.)

However, the proclamation did enact new conditions to which all proprietors were to be subject. The coffee house owner was directed to “use his utmost endeavour to prevent and hinder all Scandalous Papers, Books or Libels concerning the Government, or the Publick Ministers thereof, from being brought into his House, to be there Read, Perus’d or Divulg’d,” as well as to suppress discussion within his premises that might similarly be said to be a “Scandalous” reflection upon the government. What is more, proprietors were directed to report instances of the above to “one of His Majesties Principal Secretaries of State, or to some one of His Majesties Justices of the Peace” within two days of its appearance in the coffee house. As surety for this behaviour, coffee houses were held in recognisance to the sum of £500.

This last provision is particularly evocative of the measures proposed by SOPA and PIPA.  Like those abortive and largely unlamented attempts to control and censor the internet, the Additional Proclamation would have called upon those who most fervently opposed the law — in this case, the coffee house owners themselves — to enforce it.  Similarly, PIPA and SOPA, as some have observed, would have required Google, Facebook, and other opponents of these bills to police them.  How effective, one wonders, would they have been at doing so?

That this kind of self-regulation would have been largely unworkable is suggested by the actual experience of the coffee houses in the decades following the government’s proclamations:  there is very little evidence that these venues became any less “seditious” than before.  Indeed, by the summer of 1676, the coffee houses were once again the focus of political dissent, as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Duke of Buckingham began to employ them to organize opposition to the King’s administration.  Their success in producing a coherent oppositional voice, one which would eventually coalesce as the Whig party, is in some measure testimony to the role of coffee houses as conduits and network hubs for the exchange of ideas and information.  And the survival of the role of coffee houses in fulfilling just this function is compelling evidence that, even if it is not necessarily true that “information wants to be free,” it is certainly the case that attempts to muzzle or control decentralized information networks are likely to prove difficult at best.


Print References

Christie, W. D., ed.  Letters Addressed from London to Sir Joseph Williamson While Plenipotentiary at the Congress of Cologne in the Years 1673 and 1674.  Camden Society N.S. 8 and 9.  2 Vols.  London:  Camden Society, 1874.

Charles II. A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses.  London, 1675.

—–. An Additional Proclamation Concerning Coffee-Houses.  London, 1676.

Greenwood, Paul(?), A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee, and Its Incomparable Effects in Preventing or Curing Most Diseases Incident to Humane Bodies. London, 1674.

Ellis, Markman.  The Coffee-House: A Cultural History. 2004. London: Phoenix, 2005.

Public Record Office.  Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Charles II.   Eds. Mary Anne Everett Green, et al.  28 Vols.  London:  Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1860-1947.

Much Ado about Nothing? The British Library’s “First Folio” App for iPad

The British Library, William Shakespeare’s ‘The First Folio’ for iPad.


It’s pretty rare that I feel “leading edge”; in general, I tend to bob along after trends like a rubber dingy tethered to an ocean liner.  This Christmas was no exception:  like, it would seem, a great many others, I received an iPad2 from Santa. (Well, strictly speaking I bought it for myself, and then placed it under the tree: the old guy is too busy to keep up with all of the tech toys, and I wanted to be sure that what I received was actually what I wanted and needed.)

I have always been resistant to the allure of Apple, although I have long owned an iPod:  while I will readily concede the excellence of Apple products, their corporate philosophy and insistence upon a closed-source control over very nearly every aspect of everything they produce has always seemed to me a bit . . . well, fascist.  However, the point of getting an iPad in the first place was to get a sense of the way in which digital texts were being translated for tablet computers, and, for better or worse, most of these are being produced for the iPad (although more and more appear to be available for Android as well).

When I first began to explore digital textuality some 8 or 9 years ago, the “place” where electronic texts “happened” was, of course, on the desktop or laptop computer.  Increasingly however, and particularly with the advent of relatively cheap eReaders such the Kobo and Kindle providing access to tens of thousands of inexpensive (and sometimes even free) digital texts, digital textuality is moving on to the tablet or eReader. My interest in the books available on simple readers such as the Kindle is fairly limited right now, although I’m sure that this will change.  These are relatively unsophisticated devices after all, and their potential is limited by the simplicity of their platforms. Also, they are not nearly as pretty or fun as tablets, and you can’t play Angry Birds on them.

Title Page for First Folio

The title page of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

The potential offered by the graphics and scripting capabilities of the true tablet computer such as the iPad, on the other hand, means however that texts made available for these platforms can provide full and deeply engaging multimedia experiences.  And so, almost the first two apps I downloaded on to my shiny new iPad – just after “Angry Birds,” of course – were a Shakespeare app from the British Library, and another devoted to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.  Early Modern book geek that I am, I was particularly excited by the Shakespeare app, which promises “an exact facsimile reproduction of the large and handsome book known simply as the ‘First Folio,’” and notes that consulting early printed versions of these plays “is an essential part of a more complete understanding of Shakespeare’s work.”  Well, yeah.  Duh.

Ok, fair enough. Unfortunately, however, the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’” on iBooks turns out to be something of a disappointment.  The application does indeed provide no fewer than 905 photo facsimiles of one of the BL’s copies of the First Folio: these are very nicely rendered in full colour, and can be displayed to show one page opening, or a single page per screen. A zoom feature also permits a somewhat closer view of the text, although the image deteriorates in quality fairly rapidly if one attempts to zoom in too closely.

Sadly, however, this is pretty much all the BL app offers.  The briefest one page introduction to the history of the First Folio (given without any citations or references), and an even shorter list of the credits for the short audio excerpts included in the app represent almost the only addition to the facsimile images.

A screen capture from the BL's "Shakespeare's 'First Folio'"

Now, if one enjoys, as I do, reading early modern texts in their original printed format, the app clearly has something to offer.  For the general reader or the scholar, however, this digital edition comes up decidedly short.  There is no metadata and no scholarly apparatus of any sort; the BL doesn’t even tell us which copy of the First Folio it has reproduced.  We are told nothing about the provenance, location, identity, or material conditions – not even the page dimensions – of the book we are viewing. And, while it clearly would be expecting too much for this edition to include commentary, annotations, or extensive textual notes, a simple introduction to each of the plays should surely have been possible.  This is not unexplored terrain: a few things have been written about this guy’s plays, and one would have thought that it would not have been terribly difficult or expensive to add a few words about them.

The pages can be accessed by flipping through the book one page at a time (using the somewhat annoying “page flipping” animation that has now become almost standard for this kind of eText), and there is a table of contents that provides either a list of the plays and pages, or nearly useless page thumbnails from which to choose. A search feature (which is I think standard with iBooks) will search the two “introductory” pages at the beginning – all two or three hundred words of them – but can’t access the play texts themselves, and otherwise includes only buttons to “Search Web” and (*gag*) “Search Wikipedia.”  Other than these features, the only additional “shiny” offered us is about a dozen short audio clips from the plays, performed with Early Modern pronunciation. Cool, but not really sufficiently interesting or informative to add a great deal of value to the edition.

I’m a little mystified as to what the British Library thinks it is offering here.  The page images are very pretty, and reasonably clear, but they aren’t really detailed enough, at a screen resolution of only 768px X 1024px, to be of much use to the scholar, and the lack of even a minimal textual apparatus and metadata more or less rules out any scholarly utility anyway. As for the general reader, the complete lack of annotation, explanation, context, or indeed virtually any information about what is appearing on the screen must surely render this resource a much less useful and interesting gateway to Shakespeare’s plays than might otherwise have been the case.  How many people really want to read Timon of Athens straight through in a facsimile of an original printing, without the aid of any context, commentary, or even cheap thrills?  A few might, I suppose, but I don’t know of any, nor do I number myself among them.

Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to complain about this app. Although it is relatively expensive compared to all other book apps that I’ve seen, it is still pretty cheap, coming in at about $26.00 (Canadian).  I’d happily pay that for a print photo facsimile edition, with or without apparatus.  But it is a little off-putting that the BL seems to have put such little effort into the creation of this app.  The page images they must surely have already had, and as interesting as the brief audio clips are, they don’t really add a great deal to the package. Would it have been too much to ask for a little more in the way of information from them about the book that they are so reverently offering up to the public?  One frankly expects more from the BL than what seems to be, at first glance, a hastily-assembled and poorly contextualized collection of page images.

So, for the price, this was, I suppose a worthwhile investment.  But only just.  I’m not unhappy to have it, and I’m sure I’ll be able to make some use of it in the future, but if this represents the “future” of scholarly book apps (and fortunately I don’t think it does), then I am unimpressed.  In the meantime, however, I am well equipped for the next time I feel a hankering to read Timon with long “s”s and wormholing.

(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post originally written for Facebook. I have changed relatively little but the style, having received a criticism from a friend — well, she calls herself my friend — that my original was “pompous.”