A Review of John Willinsky's The Intellectual Properties of Learning: A Prehistory from Saint Jerome to John Locke

Review by Matthew R. Higgins

Part Two

In the book's second section, Willinsky focused on the elements of medieval learning that gave rise to the concept of intellectual property. Chapter six describes the Christian Western intellectuals' continued attempts to re-establish what they assumed to be their intellectual property, but were actually ideas that originated in Islamic Eastern European cultures. The chapter focused specifically on ideas that Western European scholars were attempting to translate or transcribe and establish as a reclamation of intellectual property, arguably the most groundbreaking event so far on Willinsky's history. Willinsky effectively demonstrated the intellectual appropriation of translations of other texts, and also explicitly connected the chapter to the remainder of the book.

Chapter seven addressed the establishment and rise of universities in Oxford and Paris. It outlined their effects on the establishment of intellectual property, and it is one of Willinsky’s strongest chapters. It provided a basic history of the two universities in regards to students’ access to texts. On the surface level, Willinsky identified the communal nature of the institutions, but acknowledged the political implications that come along with the creation of better, more easily read texts for book-based learning, which deepened the overarching story of the establishing intellectual property and adjusted the focus back on Western civilization and the slow but steady move toward individual, intellectual ownership.

The eighth chapter highlighted how the acts discussed in chapters six and seven became established duirng the later Middle Ages and into the early modern era through the experiences of Petrarca and Erasmus. Highlighting new standards that were created that resemble fair use and copyright laws in the present-day book industry, Willinsky discussed the lengthy process through which today's publication standards have evolved. This chapter marked the first point in which the events described did not, in the end, increase access to a group of people. Following the traditional format of a narrative, Willinsky allowed the reader, until this point, to see the good intentions that the previously mentioned figures had for how they treated intellectual property, including the positive influences on accessibility that were associated with various practices. Even when the debate on intellectual ownership of ideas stolen from Eastern European ideologies took place, the end result was increased access to information or ideas. This chapter sets the stage for chapters nine and ten by highlighting Erasmus’ influence on and establishment of fair use laws with the rise of various editions of texts.

Chapters nine and ten elaborated upon the rapid increase of advanced learning communities and the changes in perspective that occurred after the creation of the Gutenburg printing press, connecting the creation of movable type in Western civilization with increased recognition of intellectual property. The primary focus of these chapters was how printed books had a significant impact on the rise of more universities and the molding of what was the earliest version of present-day academic communities, rather than how the print press led to printed books themselves. Initially, it would be easy to assume that such a drastic influence on intellectual property could only be covered in brief, but Willinsky managed to provide a strong summary on the matter despite having devoted only two chapters to the direct effects of the Gutenburg printing press. During this process, he also managed to discuss how censorship and printing rights, technology, and the value of education contributed to the economy of printing.