restricted access Authorship and Ownership
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Authorship and Ownership
Baldwin, Peter. The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. 552. Cloth. $35.00. ISBN: 978-0691161822.
Bosse, Heinrich. Autorschaft ist Werkherrschaft. Über die Entstehung des Urheberrechts aus dem Geist der Goethezeit. Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2014. Pp. 236. Cloth. €29.90. ISBN: 978-3770557875.
Dommann, Monika. Autoren und Apparate: Die Geschichte des Copyrights im Medienwandel. Munich: S. Fischer, 2014. Pp. 427. Cloth. €24.99. ISBN: 978-3100153432.

We think that the person who has written a book should have some legal and economic control over it; we even think of the author of a work as its owner. Yet it took some time for ideas of author control and ownership to enter the realm of literature and acquire the obviousness that they enjoy today. After all, you do not own a literary text the way that you own a material object—say a chair you have bought—which you can make use of however you decide until you give it away, sell it, or throw it out. To begin with, the literary work fulfills its mission only when it is released to a public, rather than guarded as an exclusive possession. But the author who lets publishers disseminate the text among readers does not typically invite anyone to manipulate and change that text; even after having sold it in some way, the author wants to retain some control. If literature is property, it seems that authors want to share what they own, but retain authority over what they have sold.

The imperfect analogy between material property and literary works has often caused consternation among legal scholars, especially in the German tradition. Historically, German jurists have been reluctant to apply the term Eigentum to literary texts, even though they could be sympathetic to the desire of authors for recognition and compensation.1 The concept of property, they felt, should remain restricted to tangible things that lend themselves to circumscribed possession, as it had been historically, in the tradition of Roman law.2 In the realm of literature, the designation Eigentum would be employed in a metaphorical and hence legally confused and confusing way.3

For a long time, ownership was also viewed as an alien category in the republic of letters. Words do not belong to any one person, nor do the rules of grammar, nor the teachable procedures for generating persuasive speech, nor even particular utterances, [End Page 353] at least not as long as they are seen as elements of an extended communication. If two people are engaged in a discussion, we do not expect one of them to claim specific contributions as his or her exclusive property; why carve up a conversation? And if the realm of literature as a whole is viewed as continuously unfolding speech, with each performance representing yet another instantiation of human eloquence, the division of discourse into sharply delineated, owned units seems almost antisocial.

How, then, did the conjunction of the legal and the literary come about? How were literary pieces converted into something which authors could plausibly own? Heinrich Bosse’s Autorschaft ist Werkherrschaft from 1981 poses this very question and the republication of this book in 2014 with a new afterword by Wulf D. von Lucius confirms the continued relevance of the issue in the era of digital reproduction, as well as the book’s status as a canonical piece of scholarship. According to Bosse, the propertization of literary works was, historically, not the single, obvious, and therefore dominant solution to the problem of achieving an adequate distribution of rewards among writers. It instead constitutes one possible way of managing the production and dissemination of books legally and economically, an arrangement that emerged only after another, well-established mode of regulation had begun to seem inadequate. The core issue or problem, which these successive legal regimes sought to address, had to do with the mechanical reproducibility of texts. Once a printer releases a book to the market and it becomes successful, other printers can produce copies and offer a cheaper edition. From the advent of the age of printing, printers and booksellers did exactly this: they reprinted popular...

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