Copyright, monopoly and the author
I suppose I shouldn’t be as suprized as I am about the connections I’m discovering between various interests I’ve had in the past ten years or so, but in reading Information Feudalism, Who Owns Academic Work?, and Politics of Knowledge back-to-back-to-back has brought together interests that I’d previously pretty much held separate in my mind. The (of course still unfinished) writing project that originally brought me to Boston was a history of the B. F. Keith Memorial Theatre, which may well have been the last extravagent vaudeville house built. The building itself is a touchstone for a larger history of the era, including a study of how monopolies were built and run before antitrust laws were written. Keith’s vaudeville empire died a natural death to the emergence of new entertainment forms–radio and movies–but the circuit he ran was a textbook turn-of-the-century monopoly.
In grad school, I had followed that story as far as the writing of antitrust law in the 1920’s before turning my attention to writing fiction. I didn’t reincounter the topic until early this year when I read Drahos and Braithwaite’s book, in which they trace the rise of intellectual property law as the new tools for maintianing monopololy in the 1930’s. The history of intellectual property as a tool for monopoly goes back much futher, of course, especially copyright. In a vast oversimplification I’ll restate the history that Corynne McSherry gives in her book, that copyright law as it developed in England really existed to protect the monopoly of printing guilds rather than the rights of authors. The author as individual genuis who required legal protections for his creative output was a useful tool for commodifying and propertizing writing, which at the time could only be brought to market by a printer. At the time, it was really beyond comprehension that an author would be able to bring his work to market without signing the property copyright granted over to a publisher, an arrangement that held for 450 years.
That accident of how writing was propertized, which could easily have been otherwise, is one of the things that really allows the open sharing movement to function. I came back to this idea in reading Ohmann’s essay “Book and Magazine Publishing Through the Period of Corporate Revolution,” which talks about how some producers of genre writing in the early 20th century reduced “the writer’s part to that of pseudonymous hired hack fleshing out the editor’s outline.” In the earliest model of publishing, this was exaclty the model, that the writer–like the typsetter and binder and editor–was just one of many people involved in the production of the finished book, the ownership of which could have been located in many places and many ways. Because ownership had to be located in the content of the text rather than the finished commodity of the book in order to insure monopoly control, the idea of the individual genius of the author and his rights emerged.
Enter into this the internet, where suddenly the author does not have to sign over the copyrights of work in order to publish to the whole (digital) world. Suddenly, any hack can publish their fiction or poems or courseware. In an environment where the vast majority of writers don’t make money on writing they publish, this reduces the incentive to sign away their work, and increases the incentive to share it. On top of this, the academic tradidtion that locates faculty production as similarly owned by the creative agent of the individual faculty member rather than the institution (as a work-for-hire), suddenly the vast majority of teaching materials is available for owners not interested in profits to release to the web.