Scholarship at Penn Libraries

Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version

3-2016

Publication Source

PMLA

Volume

131

Issue

2

Start Page

289

Last Page

306

DOI

10.1632/pmla.2016.131.2.289

Abstract

Literary critics’ engagement with copyright law has often emphasized ontological questions about the relation between idealized texts and their material embodiments. This essay turns toward a different set of questions—about the role of texts in the communication of knowledge. Developing an alternative intellectual genealogy of copyright law grounded in the eighteenth-century contest between innatism and empiricism, I argue that jurists like William Blackstone and poets like Edward Young drew on Locke’s theories of ideas to articulate a new understanding of writing as uncommunicative expression. Innatists understood texts as tools that could enable transparent communication through a shared stock of innate ideas, but by denying the existence of innate ideas empiricists called the possibility of communication into question. And in their arguments for perpetual copyright protection, eighteenth-century jurists and pamphleteers pushed empiricism to its extreme, linking literary and economic value to the least communicative aspects of a text.

Keywords

English literature, 1600-1699, Seventeenth Century, Locke, John (1632-1704), Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), knowledge, idea, epistemology, copyright law, Cambridge Platonists, Young, Edward (1683-1765), Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), Blackstone, Sir William (1723-1780), 1700-1799, Eighteenth Century

 

Date Posted: 18 August 2016

This document has been peer reviewed.