In recent decades intellectual property (IP) law has become the handmaiden of transnational capitalism. “Fair use”, at least in the United States, has become a hollow shell: tap it and it shatters into a thousand sharp-edged lawsuits. Two recent books delve into the history of and effects on creativity resulting from globalized IP law. The overall picture for scientists and artists in all media is gloomy. As novelist Michael Chabon concluded, in a recent review-essay on the sources of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “Every novel is a sequel. Influence is bliss.” Influence is bliss indeed, at least until it falls under the boot heel of regressive capitalism. Now royalties, licensing fees and corporate secrecy make creative ‘gene swapping’ too expensive for most artists and scientists.
“Follow the money” is the credo of investigative journalists. As Eva Hemmungs Wirtén argues in No Trespassing, it’s also the logic of empire when scoping out the landscape of IP law in general, and copyright law in particular. No Trespassing is tightly focused on book culture: the rise of copyright law in Western Europe and the U.S., the role of translation in commodifying authorship, and the blood-drawing lawsuits that result from the bliss of influence and the influence of technology (the photocopier in particular). Wirtén’s book, with its tight focus, deep historical view, and thorough-going scholarship make it a well-written complement to McLeod’s more free-wheeling Freedom of Expression.
Wirtén, a professor of comparative literature in Uppsala, Sweden, begins and ends her book with an analysis of Victor Hugo’s role in the development of international copyright law. Hugo was “far from the first author in Europe to promote the moral and economic right of the author in respect to his labor,” but he was the first to assert those rights in a nationalist framework. The “novel”, after all, “was the perfect vehicle for the nation-state to promote itself.” Hugo was France’s national literary hero, and France was the nineteenth century’s literary center. (Wirtén claims Paris is still the center; if capital is the name of the game then I’d be inclined to point to Hollywood as the literary center of gravity.) Hugo didn’t just belong to France though; as Wirtén points out, his books were widely translated and pirated. It was the rise of the nineteenth-century novel in a trans-Atlantic context that corresponded with “increased efforts at copyright legislation, and economic control.” Continue reading