Chapter 2. A Meta-History of Collaborative Literature and Control

Table of Contents
Early Models of Collaboration Before the Eighteenth Century
Collaboration During the Birth and Early Life of Copyright
Contemporary Collaboration and Control


A well-known English professor once asked me if I honestly believed that a committee could write a great book. My answer to his question is a resounding "yes." Many, perhaps most, of the greatest works of literature, across time, across culture, and across language, are explicitly attributed to groups. As collaborative writing has gained scholarly attention in the last thirty years, many texts long-considered to be the product of single authorship have been revealed to be the product of collaborations.

In fact, my research into collaborative writing has demonstrated that collaboration is so persistent, so important, and so dynamic that this professor's question prompts several questions in response. How can prominent academics overlook collaborative literature in such a blatant manner? As the academic world founds itself on a tradition of synthesis, knowledge sharing, peer review, and editing, what set of political, social, and philosophical structures makes overlooking the importance of group work so easy? What is so important to and so intertwined with our fundamental understanding of creativity that it convinces even the most astute literary scholars to deprecate, discredit, and ignore one of the most historically effective methods of literary creation?

My answer to these questions, discussed in some detail in Chapter 1, is the intertwined group of sociological, technical, and legal concepts I call control. Control systems including social conceptions of authorship, technological methods of distribution, and codes of law, are fluid and dynamic entities. As control grows, as I will argue it has, it creates an environment hostile to collaborative writing. As this environment takes hold, collaborative writing is practiced less, ignored more, and driven underground until it effectively disappears.

In the case of this scholar's question, this process is made abundantly clear. In posing his question, he easily ignored the fact that, to one degree or another, almost every major novel, play, or large-scale poem written before the end of the Renaissance is the product of multiple hands. The little scholars know about literature from the millennia before the Renaissance tells us that early texts were the projects of communities, not individuals. We know that these ideas and texts were the property (if the term is even applicable) of God or mankind; they formed a sort of intellectual commons in which all new knowledge was based and into which all knowledge flowed ([Bollier2002]).[1]

These striking examples are possible to ignore because, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this community-based concept of authorship and the mechanisms for literary ownership, production, and control were overhauled. At that transitional point, massive shifts in the way literature was produced and distributed took hold. At that transitional point, legal changes saw literature become the property of individuals. It is at that moment, and others like it, that the following history is centered. Through major transitions in the nature of the mechanisms of control, collaborative writing has evolved and persisted.

This essay will present a historical overview of the way that control is defined. Its emphasis will be on the way that conceptions of authorship are articulated. "Authorship" is a complex and dynamic concept. As a result, this essay will consider copyright as partially reflective of attitudes toward authorship. Additionally, this relationship acts as an example of the interconnected nature of control systems as I have defined them.

With this contextual backdrop, the essay will examine a handful of particularly well documented historical examples of collaborative writing as representative of trends in the constantly evolving nature of collaborative writing. For most literary works—especially older texts—drafts, manuscripts and journals documenting the nature of collaboration are unavailable. With a lack of documentation to refute the claim, modern scholars assume singular authorship. Hopefully, my argument, supported by others who have influenced and inspired it, will help shed doubt on the wisdom of this assumption.

Brief History of Authorship

Before the rise and eventual dominance of the Romantic notion of authorship, new writing gained value from its creative affiliation with existing works, or what Martha Woodmansee describes as "its derivation rather than its deviation from prior texts" ([Woodmansee1994] 17). Before this important shift, the authorial role was often compared to that of a commentator, compiler, or transcriber. Contextualized in such a way, it is unsurprising that authors' actions in this period were intensely collaborative.

Prompted by shifts in the nature of book production and distribution ushered in by the printing revolution, authors began to take a more central role in the production of texts. Especially prompted by the rise of copyright in Britain in 1709, the eighteenth century introduced a new concept of individualized authorship based on the idea of a creative genius working alone. This idea—one at odds with collaborative, collective, or corporate creation—has remained widely influential despite powerful arguments made by theorists like Foucault and Woodmansee and a growing body of evidence that collaborative and collective creation is more effective than individual work. Peter Jaszi and a growing numbers of legal and literary theorists argue that it is copyright, a system designed to allow economic and political control of literary knowledge and expression, that has enshrined Romantic creativity in ways that have been difficult to challenge.

Brief History of Printing Technology

As a major factor behind authorship and copyright, social systems for literary production went from dynamic and ad-hoc collaborations among elite and highly interconnected literary circles to highly centralized systems similar to the contemporary publishing industry. Before Gutenberg's invention of movable type, books were written, by hand, by individuals or in scriptorium. Books, which were extremely valuable, were made of high quality materials like velum, and were passed between owners over generations. Often, each owner or reader of a book would make marginal annotations. One medieval form, the gloss, consisted largely of blank space to facilitate the addition of marginalia by readers. As books were copied by hand, changes and corrections were made; histories were extended to include more recent events. Books were designed, written, caligraphed, rubricated, illustrated, illuminated, bound, and decorated by large groups of individuals. Every book was a collaboration and no two books were alike.

The invention of printing revolutionized this system. While Gutenberg conceived as his invention as an "automated scriptorium," its use as something much more became quickly apparent. Not only were more copies produced, but different types of books as well. As one book was produced for many, the personalized nature of literature shrank. As publishing became industrialized, new technologies prompted new economic models which in turn had effects on the types of texts printed.

Brief History of Copyright

Technological changes played an imporant role in shifts in the social context of literary production and were reflected in legal shifts toward systems of centralized control through publishing laws that culminated in the creation of the Stationers company and ultimately in the articulation of copyright in the Statute of Anne. Radical technological and social shifts were intimately connected with the creation of radically different methods for the control of literature.

These systems of copyright replaced a tradition of "privilege" where monarchs would grant exclusive monopoly rights for the production of a particular text to a particular printer—usually without consultation of the text's author or authors. In England, this widespread practice eventually led to the creation of the Stationers' Company, a coalition of English printers that was granted—through an interesting combination of royal privilege and censorship policy—a monopoly on all printed material in England in return for an agreement to not print seditious or heretical material. While antecedent to copyright, the system was fundamentally different; while individual printers were granted exclusive rights, authors were neither mentioned nor consulted.

An important legal shift came in 1710 when this system was replaced with the "Act for the Encouragement of Learning and the Securing the Property of Copies of Books to the Rightful Owners Thereof," commonly referred to as the "1710 Copyright Act" or the "Statute of Queen Anne." The statute provided authors with exclusive rights to their works for fourteen years, extensible by another fourteen years if the author was still alive and cared to renew. In reality, and by design, authors' rights were immediately transfered to publishers—the legislation was lobbied for and supported by publishers alone. In the famous Donaldson v. Beckett (1774) court case, the law recognized authors' natural copyright as common law but decided that the 1710 Copyright Act supplanted this right with a statutory one.[2]

This legal shift paved the way for changing conceptions of authorship. As time went on, authors, perhaps most notably William Wordsworth (whom I will examine in more detail later in this essay) argued for this "natural" right to their artistic productions by connecting the model of Romantic creativity (dependent on the "introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe") to their desire to have more control over the use of their ideas ([Zall1966] 182, [Woodmansee1984] 427, [Jaszi1994] 35). Wordsworth went so far as to argue before Parliament for the institution of these rights. While the legislation in question was never passed, he successfully popularized his conception of authorship, the eventual dominance of which led to a major shift in popular conceptions.

In a causal reversal, this Romantic concept of authorship with its roots in the publishing industry's concept of copyright began to shape copyright itself. In this way, the Romantic conception of authorship enshrined the concept of individual creation in ways that, in the best situations, decreases the importance of collaborative work, and, in the worst, sits squarely at odds with its widespread application.



I'm using the term texts in this context very loosely. I am implicitly including oral forms of "literature" like Homer's epic poetry—itself the product of multiple authorship. Walter Ong is the author of several books and articles on the subject of oral transmission, the resulting textual changes, and nature of collaboration on oral "texts." Ong's Orality and Literacy is a good introduction to the seemingly contradictory concept of "oral literature."


An author's "natural" rights to their works are those that cannot be sold or transfered. The doctrine of natural rights claims that these rights connect an author to their work and cannot be taken away. While natural copyright plays a role in many European copyright traditions, most notably France, the rights are non-existent in United States copyright policy.