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  • Who Owns the News? A History of Copyrightby Will Slauter
  • Stephan Pigeon (bio)
Will Slauter, Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), pp. xii + 352, $90hardcover, $30paperback.

Should publishers be able to own the news they acquire and circulate? What laws are in place to ensure fair dealing and public access to essential information? In Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright, Will Slauter explains the long-standing debates about the relationship between news publishing and copyright law. Taking a historical approach to the nature of copyright in news, Slauter asks "why certain kinds of copying came to be seen as problematic at distinct moments in time" (5). Investigating news production across four centuries in Great Britain and the United States, Slauter demonstrates "the recurring struggle to balance the interests of rival publishers and the public good in relation to long-term shifts in publishing and the law" (4). The landscapes of technology, economics, and publishing customs change, but the essence of these debates, what Slauter calls "attempts to control news by treating it as a form of intangible property," have persisted (6).

Slauter's work is detailed and expansive. By investigating copyright registration records, court cases, and news publications, he aims to "determine when and where individuals have sought out copyright protection, with what motivations, and to what effect" (11). The choice to study Britain and the U.S. alongside each other is based on a "common heritage" in how copyright emerged, which is distinct from the convention of authors' rights in continental Europe, as well as transatlantic connections in the history of journalism (4). Furthermore, throughout his study Slauter returns to the question of why, "despite the undeniable expansion of copyright during [End Page 449]the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, no new statutory provisions were created for news in Britain or the United States" (273). The short answer is that in both countries, newspaper proprietors, lawmakers, and the courts considered news a nonrivalrous good that the state should preserve as a resource to serve the public's interest. The long answer is evidenced across seven chapters that explain how writers, editors, and publishers attempted a range of innovative tactics to secure greater control over the news they collected. Slauter underscores how "their failures were victories for those who argued that news belonged to the public" (273).

The study extends past the immediate scope of this journal. However, Victorian Periodicals Reviewreaders will benefit from this comprehensive history of how publishing practices intersect with the law. Chapter one begins in early modern England, when printing was regulated by licenses, censorship, and royal privileges. Slauter documents the various genres of writing that helped news emerge as a publishing category as well as the types of print matter that contained news, including corantos, diurnals, and newsbooks, among others. He further explains that the newspaper, which came to prominence in the late seventeenth century, was not an inevitable form for news communication but the result of "interrelated changes in government relations, publishing practices, and attitudes towards the circulation of information" (18).

The second chapter examines the effects of the Statute of Anne, Britain's first copyright law enacted in 1710, which specifically did not mention newspapers or periodicals despite this kind of print matter having enjoyed protection in the earlier period. Slauter contends that this aberration "was crucial to the growth of newspapers" as it modified the existing publishing rubrics (17). He adds, however, that the "culture of copying" that emerged alongside modern periodical forms "depended on changes in publishing practice that ultimately made copyright seem inappropriate for newspapers" (53). He explains how editors and publishers "recognized that copying enabled news to spread and facilitated commentary on reports issued by rivals" (53–54). Participation in the circulation of information "made economic sense" as "editors treated individual articles as shared resources" (78, 85). Slauter reasons that the absence of copyright was not a failure but rather indicative of the fact that writers, publishers, and readers all benefited from a system that did not view news as a kind of property.

Chapter three shifts to early America where the cultural practice of...


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pp. 449-453
Launched on MUSE
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