Before the Law: Histories of Copyright

You must imagine, at the eventual heart of things to come, linked or integrated systems or networks of computers capable of storing faithful simulacra of the entire treasure of the accumulated knowledge and artistic production of past ages…
–Benjamin Kaplan, 1967

Research for a talk I’ll be giving at #Congress11 includes reading some excellent studies of copyright in (or as) the history of literature. These studies share a couple of principles: they recognize the historical contingency of intellectual property law (it’s nothing natural), and they assert the fundamentally social character of all cultural production, in contrast to IP law’s attribution of it to individual “originality” (an attribution based on Romantic ideas of authorship). Mark Rose puts the matter succinctly in Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright:

The persistence of the discourse of original genius implicit in the notion of creativity […] obscures the fact that cultural production is always a matter of appropriation and transformation […] What finally underwrites the [modern copyright] system, then, is our conviction about ourselves as individuals. […] Copyright stands squarely on the boundary between private and public. (135, 139-40)

Paul Saint-Amour builds on Rose and other scholars in emerging cultural-economic fields — New Economic Criticism and Critical Cultural Legal Studies — to study copyright in Victorian and modern literature; however, his context is insistently that of the post-millennial copyfight, and he notes the contradictions of critiquing copyright on its own terms, through strategies of appropriation and infringement (like DJing, which I’ll be discussing elsewhere at Congress):

You can seldom criticize the law by breaking it and yet expect the law to forgive your infraction as criticism. Law is not an argument so much as an instrument of self-enforcement; thus, even breaking the law confirms the logic and categories of the law, which work to criminalize any transgressive act of dissent. In the case of property law, this circularity tightens further: criticizing standards of ownership can lapse into a near-absurdity when some of the most effective critical pathways — counterappropriation or parody, for example — are by definition already owned by someone else. (19-20)

(I was reminded of this comment when I found Martha Woodmansee’s syllabus for a course on “Intellectual Property and the Construction of Authorship,” with dozens of great readings made freely available for public download. If this is what fair use affords US educators, I’ll have what they’re having.)

The ability of the law to successfully prosecute infractions depends, in part, on how well the law makes itself seem natural, self-evident. Demystifying the self-evident naturalness of copyright law is a project of all these books, most ambitiously essayed in William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, a sweeping cultural-economic history that puts intellectual property law front and centre as a regulator of not just the publishing business, but also literary production and, most importantly, public access to reading.

Intellectual property has existed for so long that it is difficult to imagine a world without it, but it is not intrinsic to authorship, books, or reading as such, but it too came into existence in response to a conjuncture of economic circumstances which came together in the late fifteenth century. […] The intellectual property regime has changed frequently and drastically over the centuries. […] During the intervals when the normal intellectual property structures temporarily broke down, we can see that the whole economy of writing and reading immediately changed. (41)

So are we taking part, now, in a breakdown of IP structures, or in their further entrenchment? It can be bewildering and discouraging that the answers vary so wildly. Last week, copyright lawyer Howard Knopf blogged about Margaret Atwood’s comments on Bill C-32, which heighten “creator-vs.-educator” hostilities, and suggest misconceptions about IP law basics like fair dealing (which are especially troubling to see being expressed by such a major author). Histories of copyright bring some much-needed perspective to present debates so pressured by private-interest spin, by reminding us that copyright was invented to advance the public interest, and by suggesting ways to re-assert the priority of that interest and reclaim the cultural common wealth.

Works Cited
Kaplan, Benjamin. An Unhurried View of Copyright. New York: Columbia UP, 1967.
Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Saint-Amour, Paul K. The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.
St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.

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