Novel Properties: Communication, Copyright, and the British Novel, 1710-1774

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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eighteenth century
Intellectual Property Law
Literature in English, British Isles
Other Communication
Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion
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Literary investigations of copyright have generally taken a retrospective view of British eighteenth-century copyright law. Influenced by the assumptions and methods of historical materialism, and aiming to critique romantic notions of authorship, such projects have sought in the eighteenth century a narrative of the 'rise of the romantic author.' Though productive, this approach has sometimes obscured other influential strains of thought about authorship, interpretation, and literary property that were widespread in the eighteenth century. This dissertation seeks to shift focus away from the historical materialist critique of romantic authorship--part of a debate that has its roots in the nineteenth century--and towards a related but characteristically eighteenth-century debate between innatism and empiricism. Roughly speaking, this debate was over whether 'ideas' (however defined) are innate, present in the human mind from birth, or are acquired exclusively through experience. Discussions of literary property in the eighteenth century concerned themselves with this debate precisely in so far as literature may be said to involve the production, transmission, or consumption of ideas. To reexamine the rise of copyright law in Britain within the frame of this debate, this dissertation examines court records and other legal documents that discussed copyright law and the related notion of a property in ideas; philosophical tracts that attempted to define the term 'idea' and explain the origin of ideas; and literary works that problematized the production, transmission, consumption, and interpretation of literary ideas. Read alongside one another, these texts reveal a proliferation of models through which to understand the novel concept of literary property. To explore the question of whether the ideas in a text could be communicated without being made common, these texts drew on a wide range of metaphors--political sovereignty, land ownership, marriage, mathematical proof, and sentimental exchange--to serve as models of communication. Each of these models had different implications for the concept of literary property, and many of them were compatible with literary property, while remaining incompatible with romantic notions of authorship. The association between copyright and romantic authorship, then, is not necessary but contingent, subject to transformation by the accidents of history.

Michael Gamer
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