Table of Contents

Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law

Research Handbook on the History of Copyright Law

Research Handbooks in Intellectual Property series

Edited by Isabella Alexander and H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui

There has been an explosion of interest in recent years regarding the origin and of intellectual property law. The study of copyright history, in particular, has grown remarkably in the last twenty years, with a flurry of activity in the last ten. Crucial to this activity has been a burgeoning focus on unpublished primary sources, enabling new and stimulating insights. This Handbook takes stock of the field of copyright history as it stands today, as well as examining potential developments in the future.

Chapter 4: The ‘romantic’ author

Martha Woodmansee

Subjects: law - academic, intellectual property law


Authorship is one of the central interests of literary scholars. It is an interest we share with lawyers and legal scholars specializing in copyright, for ‘authorship’ lies at the very center of this body of law. It is the term of art for the diverse modes of creative production that it is the function of copyright to promote. ‘Authorship’ acquired its legal meaning in the rich interdisciplinary – better, pre-disciplinary – theoretical milieu of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With the subsequent specialization of the disciplines, however, conversation between legal and literary theory waned, with the result that the two disciplines have since been grappling more or less independently with the same body of ideas. My aim in this chapter is to spur greater interdisciplinary reflection on the nature of authorship. This is important because it is due in significant measure to the antiquated understanding of authorship at the center of copyright that this body of law so often misfires – that it distributes property in ideas in ways that few today accept as fair or rational. I first sketch the history of thinking about authorship, identifying a pre-modern moment extending deep into the eighteenth century and then the Romantic turn that has given us our modern vision thereof. Then, drawing on research undertaken in collaboration with Peter Jaszi, I sketch the absorption of Romantic ideology into British copyright law and subsequent international agreements culminating in the Berne Convention of 1886.

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