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The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 11, Number 4, November 2004
pp. 839-841 | 10.1353/mod.2005.0014

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Modernism/modernity 11.4 (2004) 839-841

The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination . Paul K. Saint-Amour. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 281. $35.00 (cloth).

Paul K. Saint-Amour's The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination is a fascinating critical production. Like the portmanteau word "copywrights"—which packs references to legal rights, writing men, makers of copies, makers of legal decisions, and rites of copying into its meaning—Saint-Amour's book too packs multiple topics into a richly textured and densely layered volume. The study weaves a history and analysis of copyright legislation into a discussion of the work of modern writers who not only copy, plagiarize, or parody the works of others, but do so in consciousness of the stakes of intellectual property for themselves and for their predecessors. "[T]he present book makes the more sharply focused claim that since copyright law's inception, a growing number and range of texts (both 'literary' and 'nonliterary') register a self-awareness about their status as literary property" (13). Saint-Amour explains the larger implications of this claim. "The literary texts I discuss in this book are not occupied by copyright so much as preoccupied with it: rather than accepting the fiction that copyright law is utterly external to literariness and literary culture, they recognize copyright as mutually constitutive with the literary, as forming one horizon, at least, of literary possibility" (12). The twin subtitles of the work are therefore intimately related in this study as referring to the relationship between the inside of books, their imaginative content, and their status in the outside world, as commodities, property, and symbolic objects. That "outside" includes a regulative sphere with profound effects on the possibilities for the "inside," and the power of that sphere must be elucidated in order to clarify both its contingent historical nature and its potential to control artistic expression.

In order to break the aura of copyright as a realm of naturalized fact, Saint-Amour presents a detailed history of Anglo-American copyright legislation beginning in the early eighteenth century. His argument pivots around two landmark court decisions over a century apart: the outcome of Britain's Royal Copyright Commission of 1876-1878 and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act passed in the U.S. in 1998. The range of this span is extremely important because it takes a legal history that might appear chiefly of antiquarian interest and brings it to a development at the beginning of the twenty-first century that may yet produce a genuine scholarly and artistic crisis. The practice of continual term extension for post-mortem copyright, protecting literary property long after the author's death, has created a trend Saint-Amour calls "copyright-creep," and produced a "maximalist" copyright condition that substantially erodes the rights of the public domain. Even more troublesome, current copyright law creates conditions for estates to exercise a kind of private censorship over creative and scholarly work that depends on the disposition of copyrighted material. Saint-Amour spells out the danger of the current "maximalist" trend in copyright legislation. "[T]he present copyright law is no less hospitable to private censorship, or, in other words, the creation and enforcement of private intellectual property rights that infringe on the free speech of others" (201). Copyright law has become a potential and plausible threat to First Amendment rights in the literary and intellectual domain.

In addition to offering a densely researched history and analysis of copyright law, The Copywrightsis also a sophisticated post-Marxist meditation on the theoretical ramifications of art as commodity, and a superb work of literary criticism. The two literary figures who explored the link between art as property and as product of imagination both inside and outside of their fictions are two of the twentieth century's great Irish writers, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce. In two illuminating chapters, Saint-Amour moves between the famous court cases in the lives of these writers, and their own artistic explorations of the implications of borrowing, cribbing, citing, and parodying the words and works of others. His analysis of the underlying logic and effects of the ban on...



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