ASECS 2009

The Poor Arts of our Poachers of Popularity": Defoe and the Discourse of Originality, Copyright, and Piracy

Elizabeth F. Judge
University of Ottawa

This paper seeks to shed light on the notion of eighteenth-century piracy by setting the publishers’ transgression of pirating literary texts against the writers’ transgression of appropriating fictional characters. In the latter phenomenon, an eighteenth-century equivalent to what would today be dubbed fan fiction, a writer self-consciously invoked characters who had been created by another author, through a sequel, prequel, or additional story arcs, rather than merely imitating the style or genre of a work. The reception of eighteenth-century fan fiction that provided further adventures for iconic fictional characters who had been created by another author was, like piracy, a complicated literary phenomenon, vilified by some of the original authors and met with ambivalence by others. The legal and aesthetic identities for fictional characters were hard to define. Though the ethics and aesthetics of originality, genius, invention, creative imitation, emulation, and plagiarism were actively debated in the eighteenth century by Samuel Johnson, Joseph Warton, Richard Hurd, Edward Young, William Duff, Hugh Boyd, Arthur Murphy, Edward Capell, Alexander Gerard, among many others, in only a few of these scholarly examinations is the question of borrowing fictional characters even discussed, despite the prolific presence of unauthorized second parts. If these originality discussions were incited in part by the new copyright law, one could posit that their scant attention to the creative re-use of fictional characters was because the Statute of Anne regulated against unauthorized reprinting of books. It did not delve into the thornier ethical and aesthetic questions of originality involving copying, or borrowing, of constituent elements of previous materials, such as fictional characters, and new writings involving fictional characters that were originally created by another.

To help historicize what piracy meant, the paper compares the unauthorized reappearances of a whole work versus a fictional character: how were these transgressions respectively perceived? Does copyright law adequately account for the differences? How do authors’ and publishers’ aesthetic interests and legal rights intertwine in the history of copyright and publishing? The paper focuses on Defoe, his reactions to the spurious fictional sequels, his role in the copyright debates, and the legal and literary resonances in his treatment of pirates in his fiction. It also discusses publisher Francis Noble and the sentimentalized and bowdlerized publications of Defoe’s novels. By examining the discourse of originality, authorship, piracy, and copyright circulating around Defoe’s novels, the paper seeks to identify eighteenth-century legal and aesthetic distinctions between publishers’ piracy of text versus writers’ appropriation of fictional characters.

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