Monday, August 25, 2008

Stern, What Authors Do

Simon Stern, Toronto, has posted a review essay that takes up two books on the history of literary property, both by Joseph Loewenstein: Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship and The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright. Stern's essay, What Authors Do, appeared in the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities (2003). Here's the abstract:
Research on the relations among copyright law, authorship, and the literary marketplace has long been a major focus of scholarship in law and literature, and yet much of this research has been only haltingly interdisciplinary at best. Authorial views of literary proprietorship do not necessarily match up with the prevailing legal views, but the interest in the discrepancy lies not in simply cataloguing the differences and asking which rule would best promote the production of writing, but rather in considering the sources, manifestations, and consequences of these alternative positions. Writers often are not unaware of the legal provisions but are skeptical of their premises; conversely, where authorial views of ownership outstrip those mandated by law, writers may seek to model the rules that are lacking. Both the skepticism and the modeling are less likely to become visible through direct assertions than, for example, through plots whose animating tensions involve various forms of ownership and their limits. It does not follow that doctrinal scholarship has nothing to contribute to such an investigation, since such scholarship involves examining the assumptions behind rules that differentiate idea from expression, or that allow parodies to use only so much as is necessary to "conjure up" the derided original. It is precisely because literary texts also undertake that kind of testing, but without enumerating the results in propositional form, that an interdisciplinary engagement with these questions has so much to offer.
This review takes up these questions while discussing two books on the history of literary property by Joseph Loewenstein (Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship [Cambridge UP, 2002] and The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright [U of Chicago P, 2002]). I consider the work of historians such as Lyman Ray Patterson, John Feather, and Harry Ransom, and literary critics such as Martha Woodsmansee, Mark Rose, Paulina Kewes, Meredith McGill, and Paul Saint-Amour. I also discuss literary and bibliographical research on authorship and print culture, focusing particularly on Ben Jonson. While both Loewenstein's books should be of great interest to scholars working on the history of authorship, their engagement with legal doctrine and history is limited.