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Authorship, Genre, and Copyright in the Romantic Period: Introduction

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 38, Issue 2, June 2012
pp. 25-28 | 10.1353/esc.2012.0013

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The three essays that follow, on authorship, genre, and copyright in the Romantic period, are grouped together because they mutually illuminate each other and because they have a common origin in the two panels co-sponsored by accute and the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism at the 2011 accute conference in Fredericton. One of the panels, proposed and chaired by Julia M. Wright, was on “Romanticism and Genre”; the other, which I proposed and chaired, was on “Authorship during the Regency.”

Each of the essays, taken on its own terms, enlarges our understanding of print culture in the early 1800s and, more especially, demonstrates the relevance of this moment in literary history to current debates about who can or should claim ownership of cultural products. Taken as a group, the essays reveal how productive and illuminating print culture studies—particularly the re-examination of the concept of authorship—have proved for recent work on what we persist in calling the “Romantic period.”

From the perspective of print culture studies, indeed, the very concept of a “Romantic period” is at issue, since one key romantic notion—that of the creative originality of the author—can be shown to have evolved and achieved prominence alongside, and partly as a result of, the changes in copyright law during the late 1700s and early 1800s on which modern ideas of authorship are based. As Ronald Tetreault argues in his essay, “Any adequate understanding of authorship […] must take into account the commercial environment in which it operates, because the circulation of texts occurs within a literary economy governed by structures of law, financial interests, and social practice.”

The crucial date here is not 1798, nor even 1789, but 1774, when the British House of Lords ruled on the case of Donaldson v. Becket, a case referred to in two of the essays. The ruling handed down by their lordships effectively threw out the notion of perpetual copyright, on which the London booksellers had based their arguments, and established the legality of the affordable “Scottish” editions. However, by reaffirming that copyright, as established by the 1710 “Statute of Anne,” was a grant of a limited monopoly, the Lords effectively forced those publishers who could not compete with Scottish printers’ prices to seek new, publishable work, of which they could own exclusive copyright, albeit for a limited period.

This decision gave some bargaining power to authors, especially the more popular ones such as Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Their dealings with publishers, as Tetreault shows, exemplify the early nineteenth-century transition to an “entrepreneurial model of authorship.” The unintended consequence, however, was the forbiddingly high prices charged for works by living authors. No one outside the ranks of the very wealthy could afford to spend several guineas each month buying the latest editions of contemporary poets. Tetreault, then, asks us to consider if enterprising publishers like Galignani, who challenged the complacency and elitism of the London cartel by printing affordable editions of these living poets, are justifiably referred to as “pirates” or if they were not actually performing a great service not only to readers, who were naturally grateful for the cheap editions, but, in the long run, to authors as well. Twentieth-century scholarship rather uncritically sided with the authors, accepting without much question their idea of authorial autonomy and their view of Galignani and his ilk as unscrupulous, if not criminal. Tetreault asks us to take a more nuanced approach. (And, as Mark McCutcheon’s essay shows, the issue has a certain resonance with the battle currently raging on the Internet, and in the law courts, over users’ rights versus the claims of corporate “rights holders.”)

The increased bargaining power that some writers could exercise in their dealings with publishers was not the only result of the new status given to the “author-function.” It was now possible, as Robert K. Lapp shows, for an author to leverage her public reputation, not for immediate financial benefit but to serve a more altruistic purpose. Lapp’s example—one that may come as a surprise to those who have not paid much attention to “Romantic studies” lately—is Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Her darkly...

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