Building on Alex's, Bill's and Nathaniel's
points, I'm interested in exploring the root system of the concept of "cultural
How do we, for example,
map the relationship between the emergence of the "single author" (the named
composer, playwright, choreographer, painter) in the western tradition and the (perceived)
dilemma over artists' agency in the re-mix digital era?
The idea that a single artist could
"own" his or her aesthetic output is slippery historically: Sophocles was a
named playwright but his Oedipus Rex
was essentially community property; two thousand years later Shakespeare was
identified and to some extent celebrated as the sole author of Hamlet
but shared the production rights
with the other shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and with every drama
poacher in London (the Pit was reportedly filled with people scribbling down
the good bits).
In 1879 and
without the benefit of an operational international copyright law, Arthur
Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert were forced to premiere The Pirates of Penzance
in New York rather than London in order to
protect their royalties from the real pirates of the day--the scores of American
production companies producing G & S operettas without buying the
A lesser known but very
instructive example of the trajectory of cultural tension over aesthetic rights
is the case of the early modern dancer Loie Fuller, creator of the Serpentine
Dance and its attendant craze during the early 1890s.
Fuller was a brilliant inventor-artist who had had the
foresight to copyright the dance.
But despite her efforts, a judge in the New York Circuit Court threw out
her suit to stop imitators, noting that dance movement cannot be the subject of
copyright because it "can hardly be called dramatic."
In other words, it took a long time for
the wider culture to settle into a collective understanding about the nature of
So what happens to this concept mapping in what
I'm calling, somewhat cheekily, the post-copyright digital era? If the democratization of 21st
century culture is underway largely because of an open-source ethos and the
dismantling of the professional/amateur binary (which itself didn't actually
get going with any real traction until well into the Renaissance), what exactly
does it mean to "author" a work of art for the next generation of artists? The historian in me needs to understand
how this changing etymology affects (and perhaps negates?) existing strategies
of action so that we don't get stuck in Nathaniel's "policy determinism."