Modernism and Copyright

When we teach or even conceptualize copyright law, we usually do so by genre and not by time period. One of the biggest differences on the copyright debate from 2014 from 1914 is technology. However, the concept and frameworks have not budged much since 1914. Modernism & Copyright helps frame that historic debate. Those of us interested in copyright law rarely discuss how the perspective on copyright from one industry affects artistic movements or how time periods conceptualize the copyright law of the day. With his collection of essays, Paul Saint-Amour’s Modernism & Copyright tries to recreate the way that the content creators of the Modernist period thought about copyright law, primarily focusing on writers of Great Britain and the United States.

For those unfamiliar with the Modernist period, the modernist period starts in the early 20th century and ends at or before World War II. It was one of the dominant artistic movements of the early half of the twenty centuries. Modern jazz began to develop in the modernist period as did Cubism. Major artists in this movement included Matisse, Picasso, Ezra Pound, and Virginia Woolf. Interestingly, Modernism occurs during and after the Copyright Act of 1911 in Great Britain and the 1909 Copyright Act revision in America.

The book is set up as a series of juxtaposing perspectives on copyright law. The book is arranged by type of material. These juxtapositions include the written word – comparing Ezra Pound who wanted copyright in perpetuity to Virginia Woolf who would have had them expire after death; music — from modern jazz and bebop in its joy of the riff to high culture’s classical music, which considered the rift akin to theft.  The authors of the collection of essays ground the articles in the law and history and while this may get repetitive when reading the book from start to finish, it means every article or section can be read in isolation without losing the context of the larger issues. Every section should be read together to understand the point-counterpoint that Saint-Amour constructs.

One of the strongest uses is going to be to help introduce issues in copyright law to different audiences from the perspectives of the people most in line with their own voices. English majors should read the section “Portrait of a Modernist as Copyright.” Film Studies or theater students should read “The Fall and Rise of Remix Cultures.” Historian should read “Biography, Copyright, and Privacy.” None of his sections are over 50 pages and would provide a great grounding in the varying issues and how modernists felt about copyright law at the time.

Saint-Amour reminds us that the copyright fight we’re having today isn’t that much different than the copyright fight we were having 100 years ago, and that the same values embedded in these arguments were as present in the wake of the 1909 act as they are today. This is a great read for anyone interested in the perspectives on copyright from artists, interested in seeing the juxtaposition, teaching a class in an artistic area on copyright, or just interested in this long term debate.