On Authorship and Appropriation
Critically speaking, which is the dirtier word: authorship or appropriation? Getting on for fifty years ago, Roland Barthes announced "the death of the author" (La mort de l'auteur). A renewed interest in the role of the reader in shaping literary meaning took hold. Not quite dismissing the importance of authors, book historians newly considered the input of printers and other agents in the making of literary works. Michel Foucault, meanwhile, drew attention to the idea that the 'author' is a social construct. A longstanding consideration of allusion gathered new momentum in the second half of the twentieth century. Authors, in short, remained central to literary studies, even if they were being pushed to the margins of their own works. What of appropriation? The term has more traction in the discussion of modernist art than in literary studies, even if the Tate, among others, have downplayed its importance:
"Appropriation in art and art history refers to the practice of artists using pre-existing objects or images in their art with little transformation of the original" (The Tate)
More broadly, however, appropriation is as old as literature itself, and certainly long pre-dates the significant changes in copyright law that took place in the eighteenth century. And it continued long after. The Statute of Queen Anne, An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned (1710), formally recognized in statute law for the first time the importance of proprietary rights in copies. Tellingly, though, in the 1761 case of Dodsley v. Kinnersley, Samuel Johnson’s publisher unsuccessfully sued the owners of the Grand Magazine of Magazines for reprinting Rasselas (1759) with the moral reflections excised. A book in its entirety could be protected from piracy – in theory at least – but not from abridgement, alteration, or even parody and pastiche. Not until the Berne Convention of 1886 would the moral rights of authors be fully acknowledged: ‘Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification’ (Article 6bis). In a famously aggressive article, the novelist Daniel Defoe freely acknowledges that literary property can be sold – and is therefore not tied to the writing process – but fears that secondary authors could unfairly seize his literary offspring:
"A Book is the Author’s Property, ’tis the Child of his Inventions, the Brat of his Brain; if he sells his Property, it then becomes the Right of the Purchaser; if not, ‘tis as much his own, as his Wife and Children are his own – But behold in this Christian Nation, these Children of our Heads are seiz’d, captivated, spirited away, and carry’d into Captivity, and there is none to redeem them" (Review [2 February 1710]).
Implicit in Defoe’s paternal claims over literary property is an authorial complaint that goes back to at least Martial: plagiarism (from plagiarius, ‘kidnapper, slave-stealer’). It also treats print culture as what Simon Stern calls an economy of scarcity:
"On this view, writers are trapped in a zero-sum economy in which an increased demand for one title translates into a corresponding decline for its competitors, however they are defined. This is the economic logic underlying the language of 'literary theft' and 'plagiarism' [...] These terms, often applied to various forms of imitation other than verbatim reproduction, treat copying as a form of seizure, an abduction of the author’s brainchild. 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" (‘“Room for One More”: The Metaphorics of Physical Space in the Eighteenth-Century Copyright Debate’, Law and Literature, 24:2 , 113-50 [p. 119]).
In Tom Jones (1749), Henry Fielding famously ironizes the discrepancy between ancient allusion and modern copying by sarcastically conflating economic and literary value in terms consonant with the respective economies of Parnassian abundance and Grub Street scarcity. The writings of the ‘wealthy Squires’ (Ancients) ‘may be considered as a rich Common, where every Person who hath the smallest Tenement […] hath a free Right to fatten his Muse’, but if one were to plunder from a living author, the ‘Poor of Parnassus’ (Moderns), it would be ‘highly criminal and indecent; for this may be strictly stiled defrauding the Poor’. Secondary authorship that invades the time-worn literary commons has long been considered acceptable, even gentlemanly behaviour, whereas an unacknowledged use of more recent works leaves the adapter vulnerable to irremediably prejudiced charges of piracy and profiteering.
Of all of the major novelists, Jane Austen has attracted, and continues to attract, the most fan fiction. Many of these works revisit Austen’s plots or locales, as in P. D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), set six years after the events in Pride and Prejudice (1813). In 2009 a different kind of work – a mash-up – appeared: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Although the work is credited as an ahistorical collaboration, in effect Seth Grahame-Smith mimics (rather than counterfeits) Austen as he writes the interpolative sections on zombies very loosely – and with playful anachronism – in the ‘imitated style of Jane Austen’. As much of the novel is lifted from Pride and Prejudice it is not an extension as such, but what might be called an extreme engraftment. The book has since been adapted in different media, including a 2010 graphic novel (with text supplied by acclaimed comics writer Tony Lee and art by Cliff Richards) and a 2016 studio movie. Quirk Books commissioned Steve Hockensmith to write a prequel to Austen and Grahame-Smith’s novel within a year of its first printing in order to capitalize on its sudden popularity. Tellingly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After (2010) largely covers the early training of Elizabeth Bennet as a zombie killer, and so moves yet further away from Austen’s original. Hockensmith even extended the extension a year later when he published a prequel not to Austen’s novel but to Grahame-Smith’s interpolative adaptation: Dawn of the Dreadfuls: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. We might treat this as a paradigmatic case of the adapter as ‘raider’ in H. Porter Abbott’s terms: ‘they don’t copy, they steal what they want and leave the rest’ (The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002], p. 105). Or we might consider it as the logical endpoint of eighteenth-century practice.
We seemingly live in an age of increased copyright protection, and yet unofficial continuations, engraftments, mash ups, swedings, and the like continue to thrive. An investigation into the theory and practice of authorship and appropriation is at once timely and instructive. Who owns literature?
Daniel Cook, 'On Authorship and Appropriation', Authorship and Appropriation <>