Rose on the Idea of the Author

Literary scholar Mark Rose traces the invention of copyright as a necessary but tenuous element of print society. Given the rise of immediate electronic publishing and the ease with which individuals can copy and even extend the creative work of others, the very notion of copyright and outright ownership of an author’s work is called into question.

What is an author? As Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and others have emphasized, the notion of the author is a relatively recent formation, and, as a cultural formation, it is inseparable from the commodification of literature. The distinguishing characteristic of the modern author, I propose, is proprietorship; the author is conceived as the originator and therefore the owner of a special kind of commodity, the work. [I am] concerned with the relationship between origination and ownership, and with the way these notions are incorporated in what Foucault calls “the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work”.

The author and the work. The autonomous creator and the distinct literary object, unitary, closed, and caught up in relations of ownership. The author-work relation is embedded in library catalogues, the indexes of standard literary histories, and such basic reference tools as Books in Print. It is pervasive in our educational system, where students are typically taught from the canon of major works by major authors. It is also institutionalized in our system of marketing cultural products. Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow, Zane Grey, Pablo Picasso, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Spielberg, Clint Eastwood: the name of the author or artist, conductor, director, or, sometimes, star, for in mass culture the authorial function is often filled by the star-becomes a kind of brand name, a recognizable sign that the cultural commodity will be of a certain kind and quality. No institutional embodiment of the author-work relation, however, is more fundamental than copyright, which not only makes possible the profitable manufacture and distribution of books, films, and other commodities but also, by endowing it with legal reality, helps to produce and affirm the very identity of author as author.

Copyright depends on drawing lines between works, on saying where one text ends and another begins. What much current literary thought emphasizes, however, is that texts permeate and enable one another, and so the notion of distinct boundaries between texts becomes difficult to sustain. … Many critics, too, reject any sense of the text as an object that exists apart from the culture that produced it or the succeeding cultures that have appropriated, and, for their own purposes, reproduced it. …

Let us note that what is private from one point of view (for example, the family room of a house seen from the street outside) will be public from another (the same family room considered from the privacy of one’s bedroom in the house). That the meaning of private and public changes according to where one stands suggests that this dichotomy is not a part of the world, but a way of organizing the world. It belongs, we might say, not to geography but to cartography. There is no fixed boundary between the private and the public; it always waits to be drawn; and since significant interests are at stake in copyright questions, precisely where to draw the line is always a contest. Copyright does more, then, than govern the passage of commodified exchanges across the boundary between the private sphere and the public; it actually constitutes the boundary on which it stands. Change the rules of copyright—determine, say, that photographs have authors and are protected, or determine that fair use applies more restrictively to unpublished works than to published-and the demarcation between private and public changes. “Private” and “public” are radically unstable concepts, and yet we can no more do without them than we can do without such dialectical concepts as “inside” and “outside” or “self” and “other.” Copyright law will consequently always remain a site of contestation and also a site of cultural production, a place where new maps are drawn and new entities such as the photographer-author are assembled. Always, that is, so long as copyright as an institution continues to exist. But will this unstable, problematic, often deeply frustrating institution continue to exist?

As we have seen, copyright is not a transcendent moral idea, but a specifically modern, formation produced by printing technology, marketplace economics, and the classical liberal culture of possessive individualism. It is also an institution built on intellectual quicksand: the essentially religious concept of originality, the notion that certain extraordinary beings called authors conjure works out of thin air. And it is an institution whose technological foundation has recently turned, like a vital organ grown cancerous, into an enemy. Copyright developed as a consequence of printing technology’s ability to produce large numbers of copies of a text quickly and cheaply,. But present-day technology makes it virtually impossible to prevent people from making copies of almost any text—printed, musical, cinematic, computerized—rapidly and at a negligible cost.

… [C]opyright is deeply rooted in our conception of ourselves as individuals with at least a modest grade of singularity, some degree of personality. And it is associated with our sense of privacy and our conviction, at least in theory, that it is essential to limit the power of the state. We are not ready, I think, to give up the sense of who we are.


Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 1-3, 141-142. || Amazon || WorldCat


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