Textual Authority & 18th Century Copyright Law

The lack of definition for the right of the author as the proprietor of his/her own works after being sold to a publisher means that the textual authority of later editions/printings cannot always be taken for granted.

Recently I found the following comment in a letter of Joseph Priestley to Joseph Bretland, dated 6 June 1785, relating to the second edition of Priestley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar (Priestley 1768):

I recollect that the property of | my English Grammar is not in myself, but | the booksellers into whose hands it came on | the bankruptcy of Mr [Joseph] Johnson. He however has a | share, and I have written to him, desiring | that he would get you leave to print your | edition.

These lines made me wonder as to the state of copyright law and ownership of texts in 18th century in England, and specifically made me ask myself what this meant for the authority of editions of Priestley’s English Grammar published after the second. In this passage Priestley clearly states that he does not own the property-which he has sold to Joseph Johson.

John Feather has written some illuminating papers on the subject of copyright law (Feather 1987, 1988 & 1989) in 18th and early 19th century England. The case here would fall under the Copyright Act of 1710 which sets penalties for infringement of property rights, thereby establishing a priori that there is a ‘property’, though neither describing the exact nature of that property, nor that of the proprietorship of such property. It is clear, however, that such a thing as the right of the author as the in principio proprietor of his/her own copy did not exist. Copyright was in the literal sense the right of the person holding the copy, and property was defined as pertaining to material items only. Not until the final quarter of the 18th century under the influence of several law suits, most notably Becket vs. Donaldson in February 1774, did the notion of ideas as property arise, and consequently the question of the rights of the author as proprietor of his/her own copy. It was not until the Copyright Act of 1814 that authors were given solid legal protection for their ideas, even after their work was sold to a publisher.

What this means for a remark as the one above is that where the textual authority of all editions of Priestley’s grammar after the 1768 second edition are concerned, we can no longer automatically assume that alterations were made or even authorised by Priestley himself.

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