Romanticism and Copyright

In his Copyrights and Copywrongs, Siva Vaidhyanathan traces the history of copyright legislation in Britain and America. In the US, Mark Twain’s advocacy was important, but the US lagged behind Britain, where writers in the Romantic mold played a crucial role:

“As the British author rose in status, British publishers noticed that they benefited as well from the emerging ‘star system.’ Authors and publishers ceased fighting as they realized that they both benefited from a strong copyright system and the rising cultural value of literacy and learning. As the nineteenth century rolled in, more people realized they could make a living as writers for an expanding readership. Both sides soon recognized the political power of the claim that authorial genius ‘deserved’ not just an incentive, but an ample reward for work done on behalf of the Empire and culture.”

Wordsworth’s contribution was critical. When his friend Thomas Noon Talfourd’s roposal to extend copyrights to the author’s lifetime plus sixty years was opposed, Wordsworth “organized a petition drive among British authors in support of the extension. In 1839, Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Thomas Carlyle, and other literary figures submitted petitions to Parliament. Finally, under the stewardship of Lord Mahon, Parliament passed the Copyright Act of 1842, which lasted until the twentieth century. This provided a term of the author’s lifetime plus seven years, or forty-two years from publication— whichever was longer. The authors were fairly happy with their efforts” (47).

Vaidhyanathan contends that “the interests of the general public have been ignored by the movements to expand copyright in the 1990s,” but he also opposes those who have abandoned any hope of trying to control piracy. He argues for what he describes as “thin” copyright protection: “just strong enough to encourage and reward aspiring artists, writers, musicians, and entrepreneurs, yet porous enough to allow full and rich democratic speech and the free flow of information” (5).

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