Johnson

Ian Murray says: My interest lies in controlling who uses my images … try to think beyond this surface gloss of a caring, sharing world…

Bob Croxford says: Your whole argument depends on pointing the finger at a few big multinationals like Disney and don’t care twopence for the thousands of little people in the creative industry.

Rosemary says: Literally speaking, it is quite hard to think beyond this surface gloss of a caring sharing world, if not impossible. Put it another way…

I have immense sympathy with Samuel Johnson, who came to London in 1737 to make a living, when the prevailing wisdom, as immortalised by Augustan satires on the Grub-Street hack, held that while financial independence served good writing, the marketplace produced trash. Within living memory was what Larry Lessig would call the ‘read-write’ culture of the Restoration court, where a coterie of noble poets, playwrights and satirists freely exchanged the fruits and wisdoms of their craft. By the 1730’s, direct patronage was being replaced by book-subscriptions and the making and breaking of literary reputations. Nevertheless, professional writers struggled to overcome the prejudice against the squalid practise of writing for a living.

I think it’s worth telling this story – but it’s quite long, so will have to do for a couple of days. Time is money, as they say…

The 1709 Copyright Act, known as the Statute of Anne, had been entitled, ‘An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.’ As an incentive to produce new works, it granted the author protection for fourteen years, and ‘the classics’ for a non-renewable twenty-one-year term. These time limits created the first legal notion of a ‘public domain’ – a collection of works old enough to be considered outside the scope of the law, and under the control of the public and culture at large. The Statute of Anne also enshrined the first statutory protection of literary property.
While it may have doffed its hat to the authors, the focus of attention was on balancing the interests of a burgeoning bookprinting industry with anti-monopoly concerns. It was designed by a Whig oligarchy intent on completing the erasure of the special privileges and monopolies conferred by the crown. If London was to be a new centre of civilisation, the anti-monopolists argued, an open government, a free press and active debate must ensure an unprecedented exchange of ideas. Moreover, a book was not a thing, but ‘an Assemblage of Ideas’ which might be patented for a number of years like a mechanical invention, but could not be held permanently.

The Kit-Cat club publisher, Jacob Tonson, known as the ‘Chief Merchant of the Muses’ was a supporter of the Statute of Anne. The Kit-Cat club was the most powerful club of the early eighteenth century. It promoted the interests of the Whig party by setting out to shape the arts through an elaborate web of influence and patronage. Works of art, because of their persuasive power, were regarded as seminal in creating a newly refined and polite public.

Johnson would have found himself between this – let’s say – political philosophy, and that of the London booksellers, who for their part, deployed successive restrictive practises for the next sixty-five years in a largely successful attempt to retain control. They claimed that the author or his assignee had a perpetual copyright under common law and threatened those who violated it with suits in the court of Chancery. In 1745, Johnson’s Miscellaneous Observations on ‘Macbeth precipitated a letter from Jacob Tonson stating his claim to the copyright of Shakespeare’s plays, which he had bought in 1707, thereby delaying Johnson’s new variorum edition for a further twenty years. By 1750, Johnson and his growing band of fellow-professionals were still struggling to survive.

If you can’t beat them, join them. What happened to change Dr.Johnson’s fortunes was that the great critic and dictionary compiler became the book-sellers’ most powerful spokesman. He and his literary allies began to argue that what distinguished the true author from the hack was not the economic conditions in which he found himself, but the individual ingenuity and originality that the work displayed. To counteract the view that literary composition was a form of concept ‘assembly’, they emphasised the importance of the author’s unique ‘style and sentiment’. Samuel Johnson led the way, arguing that a good author had a ‘stronger right of property than that of occupancy; a metaphysical right, a right as it were, of creation’ – a claim which he substantiated in his great portraits of the artist in the 1770s and 1780s. Literary criticism shifted its emphasis from assessing a work’s conformity to a set of conventions and rules, to showing how each author shaped a particular work. Such concepts as ‘natural genius’, inspired composition, or the spontaneous stroke of invention totally beyond the reach of deliberate intention, method or rule, replaced the neo-classic view of art as a deliberate craft of ordering means to ends.

It is worth mentioning that Samuel Johnson’s literary career could not have contrasted more strongly with that of a Romantic poet. If the full flowering of the Augustan emulation of classical antiquity was in abeyance by the time that he came to London in 1737, nevertheless this was his inspiration. The work with which he commenced his literary career, London: a Poem, in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal was one of numerous Imitations, from the loosest of paraphrases to modernised translations, that had studded the decades since 1670. The Vanity of Human Wishes, modelled on Juvenal’s Tenth Satire followed in 1749. As a young unknown, Johnson’s choice of Juvenal adopts a stance of unrecognised merit and the indignation of one who scorns to learn the art of currying favour, but suffers for not practising it. Johnson was steeped in an idiom which more than any other, knew what it was to stand on the shoulders of Giants, and required that the reader knew this too. Before the digital age, it is hard to think of a culture more dependant on copying, for author, critic and reader alike. To be deemed a gentleman or gentlewoman was the end, and emulation was the means.

In making this move, the great neoclassical writer had borrowed the vestments of the rising pre-Romantic mood. Nothing could have been more convenient to those booksellers who wanted the right to sell a work or to sell the right in perpetuity, than this emergence of the author as the creator of a unique property which he owned by virtue of a singular imaginative act. Literary arguments around originality of style and sentiment and creative genius reinforced the commercial claim for ownership. An author could sell it of course, and booksellers trade in it, but such a property right, the booksellers argued, was perpetual. This mighty partnership would make Johnson’s Literary Club the most influential for the rest of the century, affording numerous opportunities for mutual profit and advantage for as long as they could keep the ‘pirates’ at bay. Together, they set about promoting a select pantheon of literary deities as a national heritage which they hoped would remain firmly in the booksellers’ control.

In fact , as we learn from William St Clair’s researches for his remarkable overview of 400 years of what he calls ‘the printing era’, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period – they actually produced a smaller number of books at higher prices as the century progressed, and displayed their usual tendency, through the institution of intellectual property, to ‘pay most attention to the topmost tranches of the market, to move slowly down the demand curve, to ration supply to the market in order to protect the market value of a product, to neglect large constituencies of the market altogether, or to supply them with obsolete and shoddy goods.’

The legal mess in which statutory and common law copyright were at odds was only resolved in 1774 when perpetual copyright in England was finally declared invalid by the House of Lords, in the case Donaldson v. Beckett. England now enjoyed the same ‘mixed system’ of copyright confined to one generation that had prevailed in Scotland and Ireland since 1714. Political economists led by Adam Smith, who were the beneficiaries of the Scottish ‘mixed system’ forcibly argued that perpetual copyright conflicted with a new public interest in the free circulation of knowledge, and information. Property acquired value not because it was a ‘thing’ that was owned but through its circulation and exchange in a system of commerce. According to William St Clair the change in 1774 was immediate, ‘prices tumbled, production soared, and access widened… Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe… sold more copies than it had in seventy years after it first appeared. More copies of Shakespeare were sold within twenty five years of 1774 than in the 150 years after the first collected edition…’

St Clair argues that the flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment and the Romantic period that followed was very much down to the sharing that was made possible by this restriction on copyright term. Musing on the absolutist terminology of “property”, “theft” and “the author as unique creator” which dominates intellectual property debates today – he concludes trenchantly, ‘No one, whether author or intellectual property owner, can reasonably claim that any substantial text has been compiled solely from privately owned materials.’ ( This is in an article in the TLS, May 12 2006, titled, ‘But what did we actually read?’ )

I agree with him, and I must add – least of all Samuel Johnson.

Think about it. Here is an immensely clubbable man whose life has been memorialized, by his companion, Boswell, in a welter of conversation – and whose success was completely dependant on the Ancients, fellow poets and critics, a new industry, the construction of a reading public, and the growing of a national culture. It seems a peculiar fate that such a Londoner when London was the world city, should have been willing to disguise the project as an act of solitary self-expression.

Yet we can easily see how the temptations of monopoly, whether in terms of power or profit, literary reputation or the financial independence that followed, were impossible to resist under those circumstances ( or indeed any). On the one hand, the ownership claim conferred status and wealth, and on the other, it rendered opaque the mechanics of commerce and social control. In the name of ‘quality’, it kept the reader, ostensibly the target of the whole endeavour, hostage to a ‘star system’ which has lasted until the present day. Indeed, in less than a century, the same syndrome was again at work. By the time William Wordsworth instigated the Copyright Act of 1842, supported by Thomas Carlyle and the young Charles Dickens amongst others, they had the full-blown image of the lone Romantic genius to draw on. They too were willing to bind their fates to the publishers’ interest in the Romantic ‘star-system’.

This is not to diminish the extensive achievements of Johnson’s life-work. It must be possible to demystify this ‘genius’ without detracting from it, a task begun by some of his contemporaries, after all, when they christened him Dr.Pomposo, and subjected the Literary Club’s enthusiasm for ‘regulating and correcting the public taste’ to a round of cartoon ribaldry.

So – my point is not to diminish the little people in the creative industries – or the big people. It is to try and understand fully the choices they and you have. In Johnson’s case, I believe he found himself in the middle of a paradox: he was never more innovative and inspired than when he was attentive to the constituency he was the first to name, ‘the common reader’, with whom he so eloquently said he ‘rejoiced to concur… for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.’ Yet the sureness with which he located this heartbeat in the body politic owed nothing to lone genius and everything to inspired eighteenth century networking. And when he allowed himself to make his Faustian pact with the booksellers, it was this same ‘common touch’ in all its diversity and creative potential, on which he also had to turn his back.

What do we conclude from this? There’s quite a lot to conclude I think ( including to wonder whether the internet hasn’t just illuminated a rather bigger set of issues around intellectual property) – but I’ll stick to one point. People will do what they can – but whatever kind of creator you are – neo-classical, Romantic, very clever or rather ordinary – your work will have come out of the common pool and common language, and surely it should go back there as well?… if we can agree the principle, then we can start talking about how everyone is to make some money en route …

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9 Comments on “Johnson”

  1. Bob Croxford Says:

    “I have immense sympathy with Samuel Johnson, who came to London in 1737 to make a living, when the prevailing wisdom, as immortalised by Augustan satires on the Grub-Street hack, held that while financial independence served good writing, the marketplace produced trash.”

    Oh No! We now have to have dilletante poets as something to aim for. Fine, lets just chuck out all the hacks like Mozart, Shakespeare, Dickens and all the others who did it for money.

    The one thing I will not agree on is the ‘common pool’ theory beloved by Lessing and yourself. In a ‘cut and paste’ computer age it might be popular but it doesn’t explain why culture and ideas are not evenly divided between people, countries and societies.

    Bob

  2. Ian Murray Says:

    “Ian Murray says: My interest lies in controlling who uses my images … try to think beyond this surface gloss of a caring, sharing world…”

    Rosemary,

    Doing such a hack job on my lengthy posts to produce two quotes that suit your purpose says more about you than about me.

    Beneath the ‘caring, sharing world’ that you have been paid to help imagine lies big business interests. Yahoo buy out Flickr, Getty buy out iStockphoto.

    I would have more respect for your view- though struggle with all this Dr Johsnon stuff- if I knew that you weren’t being paid to write biased propaganda at the expense of any concept of fair play or truth.

    That’s the end of the discussion from me. I see that all you will do is twist things. So, much for culture and freedom as you perceive it.

    Phoney.

    Ian Murray

  3. Rosemary Bechler Says:

    Ian – of course I picked two quotes that served my purpose – haven’t we all done that? But that doesn’t mean to say that I’ve ignored the rest. And I was indeed paid to write what I thought was true after looking into this terrain as best I could. That’s what I have done. I’m not sure why that is propaganda and what everyone else thinks, isn’t.

    Don’t we have to take it that we mean what we say, at least at the time – actually, one of the problems with CC Licenses is that if you really change your mind about a subject in a rapidly changing field – you can’t call it back in…

    But I haven’t changed my mind so far, and am happy to keep talking if you are…

  4. Ian Murray Says:

    Rosemary,

    My apologies for being rude. I was angry and hurt to be misrepresented by you.

    But there is little point continuing in such an unbalanced dialogue. You control, you select. you are in charge, and you have fixed ideas and an agenda to get across. The views and concerns of people such as myself simply don’t matter to you and can’t be allowed a fair hearing. Behind the liberal front of CC the intolerant heart is revealed.

    Offering your short book under a CC licence is a gesture. It is not of itself of any real commercial value- as you well know. You have been paid to put it out under a CC licence. It is not an example for others to follow or point to.

    If you produce a commercially valuable piece of work – one that the market would pay good money for- would you be so keen to offer it to anybody interested in publishing it for free in the interests of cultural sharing? Say you have composed a piece of music, or a short story, a poem, a picture, a photo, a novel, a play and your agent lets you know that there is strong commercial interest in it. What do you do? Accept an exclusive deal with one publisher in return for money and future royalties? No, not you! You’d stick with your beliefs and gladly offer it for free all over the place to anybody that could make use of it. Wouldn’t you Rosemary?

    ‘….one of the problems with CC Licenses is that if you really change your mind about a subject in a rapidly changing field – you can’t call it back in…’

    This is the heart of the problem for photos, and especially so for inexperienced creatives, who might not even think about the future, and before they realise its too late and there are millions of copies of their work all over the place. You claim that traditional copyright benefits distributors over creatives. The Flickr owners seem to have done very nicely out of pushing CC licences, on the pretence that they were protcting peoples’ rights rather than reducing them, and then selling out to Yahoo. Getty this year spent $50 million buying out iStockphoto- a designers’ image sharing community. It’s clear who the winners and losers are to me. Anyone else who sets up a worthwhile CC collection will be gobbled up by a similar commercial giant. The distributors will be laughing all the way to the bank while the naive, caring, sharing contributors will get zero apart from eroded value of their IP.

    CC won’t work because it doesn’t look after creatives. It offers an unnecessary dilution of copyright without any clear return or incentive to the IP owner. It doesn’t make business sense.

    Anyway, no point continuing this simply to be used by you as a foil. I’m off!

    Ian Murray

  5. Rosemary Bechler Says:

    I’m sorry you feel that – sincere thanks for all your contributions, Rosemary


  6. Bob: I’m glad you mentioned Shakespeare, a good example of someone who wrote without the incentive of copyright, yet still produced great works. And I’ll take it on your authority that he made money also. Excellent!

    I don’t understand what you’re trying to say about a cut and paste computer age and the distribution of ideas between cultures. Can you elaborate? Possibly without yet another refrain of “Lessig and the Lemmings”? (That would be a great name for a rock band, if I may steal from Dave Barry.)

  7. Bob Croxford Says:

    “Bob: I’m glad you mentioned Shakespeare, a good example of someone who wrote without the incentive of copyright, yet still produced great works. And I’ll take it on your authority that he made money also. Excellent!”

    Dear Scott

    Shakespeare did not write without the benefit of reward though.

    Bob


  8. […] I enjoyed contributing some scattered and rambling observations to discussions here and here. I enjoyed it for the chance to fire off some thoughts, but not so much as a debate. This is one of those debates where people on both sides are pretty well set with what they believe. (As are most debates. Tastes great! Less filling!) We’re all talking and no one is listening. […]


  9. Absolutely! I think there will still be the benefit of reward with less restrictive licenses and copyright laws, whether that be from patronage, advertising, collateral income generators, or new forms of compensation. And people will still need to be original and good if they hope to earn much money. Why pay the simple copycat?


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