Jacqueline Rhodes

Copyright, Authorship, and the Professional Writer

The Case of William Wordsworth

As Martha Woodmansee and others have noted, changes in literary definitions of author have not appreciably influenced economic and legal definitions. In »The Law of Texts: Copyright in the Academy«, Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi write that it is »possible to overlook the substantial contribution of Romantic aesthetics to our law of texts, with the result that while legal theory participated in the construction of the modern »author«, it has yet to be affected by the structuralist and poststructuralist critique of authorship.«

Romantic aesthetics as expressed in texts such as William Wordsworth's 1798 »Preface to Lyrical Ballads« remain influential in our legal definitions and »commonsense« ideas of authorship, particularly those that emphasise »vivid sensation« and the »spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings« as elements of creativity and thus authorship. Today, the clearest and most convincing evidence of the discursive intersections of aesthetics and law appears in discussions of Internet technology and its accompanying new »authors« and »texts«, making those intersections appear to be a particularly late-twentieth-century phenomenon. Wordsworth's »Preface« and other statements of his aesthetic theories suggest otherwise.

Clearly, a complete explication of the intersections of legal history and aesthetic judgment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is beyond the scope of this paper; however, a contextualisation of Wordsworth and several of his various writings on copyright and authorship can sketch those intersections. In this paper, I will argue that the intersections of aesthetics and law evident in Wordsworth's writing are a continuation of certain economic and legal developments which took place in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Specifically, I will argue that the economic and legal conditions of Wordsworth's time tied production and payback together, and that that tie becomes particularly apparent upon the eve of the 1815 publication of the two-volume Poems by William Wordsworth. Wordsworth's concern with issues of copyright and authorship at the time of Poems' publication indicates a clear preoccupation with the problematic intersections of aesthetic and legal discourse.

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