Speck on Greene, 'The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730'

Jody Greene
W. A. Speck

Jody Greene. The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. vi + 272 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-3862-4.

Reviewed by W. A. Speck (University of Northumbria) Published on H-Albion (September, 2006)

What's in a Title?

I have come across some puzzling titles in my time. One that springs to mind is The Formal Strain which turned out to be not a study of stress but of Augustan poetry. Another is Forced Founders which concerned not slave labor in foundries but Virginian rebels against Britain. And here is another which at first sight suggests problems arising from real estate but which the subtitle indicates is about authorship. If at first it puzzles, as one gets into the argument the point is made that to own a written work is a key concept in Jody Greene's thesis. She shows how ownership was not only sought by authors anxious about copyright, but also how it arose from the anxieties of the state. The English government in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wished to pin down responsibility for a particular publication on the person who had written it. It was simpler to hold the author responsible than the printers, publishers and booksellers who were also involved in its production and distribution. These conflicting interests, of authors and the authorities, led to the Copyright Act of 1710, here rather awkwardly cited as "the Act of Anne," another curious title. While it gave authors, who took advantage of its provisions to register their ownership of a title, the right to their intellectual property, it also made them liable for the consequences of publication. These could still be quite dire if their writings were judged to be obscene or seditious.

Put so baldly, the thesis could have been expressed in an article. It is expanded to the length of a book by the judicious use of legal proceedings and treatises on authorial rights and responsibilities. These stretch from the reign of Henry VIII to that of George II, so that the dates given in the subtitle are slightly misleading. Indeed chapter 2, "The Trials of Authorship: Finding the Author in Court," opens with the cases of 1634 and 1637 involving William Prynne. Two treatises loom large in the book: Sir Roger L'Estrange's Considerations and Proposals in Order to the Regulation of the Press, and Daniel Defoe's Essay on the Regulation of the Press. Greene shows how these prepared the ground for "the Act of Anne." Subsequent case studies involve the proceedings surrounding the publication of Pope's Dunciad Variorum and Gay's Polly. These are summed up in a choice quotation from John Arbuthnot in a letter to Jonathan Swift which nicely illustrates Greene's point: "Mr Pope ... had gott an injunction in chancery against the printers who had pyrated his Dunciad; it was dissolv'd again because the printer could not prove any property, nor did the Author appear; that is not Mr Gay's case for he has own'd his book" (quoted, p. 150).

The bibliography of primary works indicates an extensive survey of the relevant titles, although the relevance of all 176 volumes of the English Reports cited is not evident from the footnotes. On the other hand, they do reveal that Greene has examined manuscript material in the National Archives not listed among the primary sources. The list of secondary authorities adequately covers the history of literature and the book trade with which the book is primarily concerned. However, it also involves political history on which Greene would have benefitted from more conventional studies. For instance, Geoffrey Holmes's classic British Politics in the Age of Anne (1967) would have saved her from the very unsatisfactory paragraph on the nature of occasional conformity. The Corporation Act of 1661 was not the same as "the Municipal Corporations Act," which was not enacted until 1835. Those holding office in borough corporations had to take communion in an Anglican church once in the year before their appointment. The Test Act of 1673 applied to office holders under the Crown, who had to receive communion within three months of their appointment. The bill to outlaw occasional conformity introduced into "the Commons" (not "Commons") in November 1702 was primarily aimed at those in breach of the Corporation Act, not the Test Act.

It is a pity that historians operate in different spheres even where they overlap. Greene could equally well retort that those who study political history have overlooked the significance of the concerns she here addresses. Indeed she herself takes to task scholars who have specialized in different aspects of literary history. Tucked away in a footnote is an important statement of her intention in writing this book. Thus she explains that her "account seeks to bridge the gap between the histories of canonical literary figures like Pope and new feminist histories of women in the book trade models of literary historiography that have rarely seemed to connect in these recent studies. This lack of connection between the different sorts of history has allowed canonical literary histories to ignore precisely the messy relations among authors and members of the book trades that this essay attempts to expose" (p. 247n.). It succeeds in doing so admirably.

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Citation: W. A. Speck. Review of Greene, Jody, The Trouble with Ownership: Literary Property and Authorial Liability in England, 1660-1730. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. September, 2006. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=12253

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