Saturday, February 23, 2008

What is an author?

From Peter Jaszi, Case Western Reserve's own Martha Woodmansee, and their collaborators, an excerpt from Beyond Authorship: Refiguring Rights in Traditional Culture and Bioknowledge:

An "author" in the modern sense is the creator of unique literary, or artistic, "works" the originality of which warrants their protection under laws of intellectual property -- Anglo American "copyright" and European "authors' rights." This notion is so firmly established that it persists and flourishes even in the face of contrary experience. Experience tells us that our creative practices are largely derivative, generally collective, and increasingly corporate and collaborative. Yet we nevertheless tend to think of genuine authorship as solitary and originary.

This individualistic construction of authorship is a relatively recent invention, the result of a radical reconceptualization of the creative process that culminated less than two centuries ago in the heroic self-presentation of Romantic poets. In the view of poets from Herder and Goethe to Wordsworth and Coleridge genuine authorship is originary in the sense that it results not in a variation, an imitation, or an adaptation, and certainly not in a mere reproduction, but in a new, unique -- in a word, "original" -- work which, accordingly, may be said to be the property of its creator and to merit the law's protection as such.

With its emphasis on originality and self-declaring creative genius, this notion of authorship has functioned to marginalize or deny the work of many creative people: women, non-Europeans, artists working in traditional forms and genres, and individuals engaged in group or collaborative projects, to name but a few. Exposure of these exclusions -- the recovery of marginalized creators and underappreciated forms of creative production -- has been a central occupation of cultural studies for several decades. But the same cannot be said for the law. Our intellectual property law evolved alongside of and to a surprising degree in conversation with Romantic literary theory. At the center -- indeed, the linchpin -- of Anglo-American copyright as well as of European "authors' rights" is a thoroughly Romantic conception of authorship. Romantic ideology has also been absorbed by other branches of intellectual property law such as the law of patent and trademark; and it informs the international intellectual property regime. In patent it survives today both in figurations of the inventor and in the emphasis, which this body of law shares with copyright, on the "transformative" moment in the creative process.

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