Who Owns This Sentence?: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs
- By Alexandre Montagu and David Bellos
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- February 5, 2024
An astute survey of ever-evolving proprietorship laws.
As a book about the history of copyright, Alexandre Montagu and David Bellos’ Who Owns This Sentence? should appeal only to a niche audience. Yet it’s a surprisingly accessible recounting of the major twists and turns — and there are many! — surrounding this topic.
As set in stone as it might seem, “Modern copyright is a social construction, not a basic fact of life,” the authors note in their introduction. “In medieval Europe, everything belonged to God and was therefore in the gift of a sovereign, empowered to divvy up God’s creations by granting privileges over them to his lieges. Over centuries, the religious foundations of feudal monarchies crumbled; first the rights of the barons, then of commoners, and eventually of the people came to fill the space grudgingly vacated by the Crown.”
The authors detail the various steps leading to the creation of copyright doctrine, highlighting its continuing transformation:
“Not a year has passed since the early nineteenth century without a congressional committee, a parliamentary commission or an international convention reconsidering the matter.”
Bellos and Montagu examine the “birth of modern copyright” via the Statute of Anne in 1710, which “restored order to what had been a chaotic time in the book market in London by giving publishers the means to pursue and quash pirate editions printed in the provinces and in Scotland.” From there, they discuss the differences in the ways various countries have implemented copyright systems across the centuries, often to the detriment of creators:
“Authors’ incomes from writing have been falling for precisely those decades during which copyright has been greatly extended in range, scope and term.”
The authors emphasize that such doctrines are heavily dependent both on individual countries and, more minutely, individual arbiters. Because so much of copyright relies on interpretation, they note, it has become a rich man’s game: Only those with pockets deep enough to gamble on a judge sympathetic to their own analysis can afford to bring a case.
Montagu and Bellos also spare some scorn for authors’ descendants who attempt to monopolize their predecessors’ creations ad infinitum. In certain cases, as with Pushkin’s widow, who intentionally kept much of her late husband’s unpublished material for herself after his death, this criticism is warranted. “In the year her control of the most treasured poetry in Russia lapsed,” they write, “no fewer than 163 different editions of works by Pushkin appeared.”
In other situations, however, the calculations are more complex. The authors note that Martin Luther King Jr.’s estate “[treats] King’s name as a brand for commercial exploitation.” While there may be a significant monetary motivation for this wrangling, readers might wonder whether King’s descendants are also trying to protect against uses of the man’s words that would be antithetical to his teachings.
The book is strongest when emphasizing how modern copyright has been transmuted to such a degree that it no longer resembles its original form and now includes provisions mandating payment for such ephemera as basic information. “God’s gift of knowledge has been preserved from privatisation in principle,” the authors wryly note, “but in practice we now pay to get hold of it.”
This is particularly relevant when considering computer programs, which have lately been defined as “literary works” and therefore potentially subject to copyright protection. Users of LINUX and other systems may have a bone to pick with that analysis.
Who Owns This Sentence? is an exhaustive analysis of both copyright’s origins and its current-day statutes. Though fairly dense, it’s well worth a read for anyone interested in history, publishing, or philosophy.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.