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Tuesday April 12th, 2011

Creativity, Copyright, and the Universal Library: Romanticism and Writing at Times of Media Revolution

This Program Has Been Archived

Adrian Johns, Professor of History at the University of Chicago

Tuesday April 12, 2011, 4:00-5:30 p.m.

Sponored by the Edward S. & Melinda Melton Sadar Lecture in Writing in the Disciplines and Organized by the Center for the Study of Writing in conjunction with the Department of English, the Department of History, the School of Law, and the Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University

Google’s ambition to produce a massive online ‘library’ of digitized books has provoked passionate reactions from the publishing industry, authors, and other groups. In fact, debates over the purpose and possible impact of ‘universal’ libraries are nothing new, and in the past such debates have had a significant impact on the constitution of the information economy itself. I want to draw attention to a particularly consequential conflict, which raged in the years around 1800. As publishing took on its modern form, and with the advent of new printing technologies, Britain’s parliament proposed that copyright law be used to create a universal deposit library. Tying commercial print to the collection of learning would, in its eyes, lead to the climax of Enlightenment. But the project proved unexpectedly controversial. An alliance of poets, antiquarians, naturalists, and publishers fought bitterly against the scheme, arguing on Romantic grounds that it betrayed the very nature of creativity. By collecting the output of an industrial, proprietary publishing sector, it would immortalize mediocrity and demoralize future generations. The outcome of the contest was a critically important change in copyright itself — one that has survived to play a major role in shaping the Google debate, in our own moment of radical change in media and information.

Adrian Johns is the author of Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age (2010); Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (2009); and The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998), as well as numerous articles on the histories of the book, science, and intellectual property. Educated at Cambridge University, Johns taught at the University of California, San Diego, and Caltech before joining the University of Chicago faculty.