Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Copyright and real property metaphors

Simon Stern, “Room for One More”: The Metaphorics of Physical Space in the Eighteenth-Century Copyright Debate, forthcoming in Law and Literature, vol. 24 (Summer 2012). Great discussion of the rhetoric of an economy of scarcity versus an economy of abundance.  “Talk of misappropriation and pilfering suggests that texts are diminished through copying, as if the novelist who “borrows” a plot has removed something from the book, leaving it incomplete.”  By contrast, the economy of abundance may be  

discerned in the etymology of “copy,” from copia, “transcript, duplicate” (an extension of the word’s root sense, “copiousness, plenty”); analogously, “author” derives from augere, “augment, increase.” Here the author is a principle of multiplication, not merely recycling the resources in the literary commons but expanding their range, so that each use enlarges the stock of the trade. Prevalent in Renaissance theories of authorship as amplification, and invention through imitation, the economy of abundance accords with an emphasis on the text’s immateriality. To disregard the text’s material dimensions is to ignore its only means of depletion, so that any future use becomes a form of increase.  This notion, the source of much resistance to copyright in the eighteenth century, has been translated into the doctrines of “fair use” and the “public domain,” but in neither instance has the idea of abundance survived.

Property as a metaphor is now understood to situate copyright in the economy of scarcity, but that wasn’t the only alternative.   

Also on the rhetorical uses of other bits of terminology: 

The difference between “works” and “writings” roughly corresponds to the difference between a view that gives the writer sole responsibility for a unique invention and a view that places writer and text in a more interactive sphere where others are pursuing similar efforts. The term “works,” first used self-reflexively by the intensely proprietary Ben Jonson, appeals to a proto-Lockean notion of labor as the basis of textual identity, while also subordinating the creative process to focus attention on the final product, the granite edifice that enshrines the author’s reputation. . . .  Those who characterize their output more modestly as “writings” emphasize neither the magnitude of their achievement nor the laboriousness of composition, but the residue of continuous activity that inheres in the participial may make the author’s industry more salient: the term that declines to classify literary production as labor is also the one to hint that an author’s work is never done, that writing continues into the present, as if the imperfect verb has become an imperfect noun still capable of further amendment.  

Cf. “vidding” as the focus of inquiry rather than “vids.”

No comments: