Early Models of Collaboration Before the Eighteenth Century

Before the shift that Foucault refers to as the "individualization" of authorship, explicit and deep collaboration was the dominant method of literary production. Martha Woodmansee describes the role of the author before the dominance of Romantic authorship as not dissimilar to other types of literary creators like scribes, compilers, or commentators. Woodmansee references a definition by the thirteenth century St. Bonaventure who describes an author as one who "wrote both with his own work and others' but with his own work in the principle place adding others' for purposes of confirmation" ([Woodmansee1994] 17). This thirteenth-century definition of authorship places literary creation squarely within the context of collaboration.

In another article, Woodmansee explores Europe's pre-copyright methods of compensation for artistic work. Prefacing the discussion, she notes that the concept of the professional writer is a relatively recent innovation. Before this period, writing was completed largely as a part-time occupation ([Woodmansee1984] 431). Most early professional writers were supported by honorarium, or a payment to an author to produce works that was given either by printers or by a king or noble. In this way, the honorarium acted as the backbone for systems of patronage. An honorarium was a mark of esteem and a method for a printer or sovereign who appreciated or benefited from the works to ensure the continued work of the author. It was not payment in exchange for exclusive transfer of work. In fact, an honorarium bore no fixed relation to exchange value or an acknowledgment of the writer's achievements. It was usually a fixed sum that did not fluctuate with the publication of new works ([Woodmansee1984] 434-5).

Through creation by non-professional writers and through the support of authors through honoraria, the constant production of new work was insured without the need for system of intellectual property or ownership. This arrangement was essential as the dominant models of literary creation were fundamentally intertwined with borrowing and collaboration in ways that a system of control, ownership and propriety complicates and hinders.

Imperial Chinese Literature

One example of this model is described in To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense. The author, William P. Alford, attempts to explain why China had no laws resembling Western intellectual property or copyright until the twentieth century. Alford argues that the Chinese refused to adopt intellectual property policies because they were fundamentally incompatible with Chinese literature's basis in a creative process that elevated and necessitated borrowing, synthesis, and quotation—in a word: collaboration.

It is clear that the production of knowledge and literature in Imperial China was shaped by an intimate engagement with the work of others—especially one's predecessors. Drawing from the work of the noted Chinese literary scholar Stephen Owen, Alford makes generalizations about Imperial Chinese literature, describing how in order to "avail themselves of understanding in order to guide their own behavior, subsequent [Chinese] generations had to interact with the past in a sufficiently thorough manner so as to be able to transmit it" ([Alford1995] 25). Owen compares the importance of this connection to the past in Chinese literature to the attention to meaning or truth in the Western literary tradition—perhaps Western literature's most important goal ([Alford1995] 26).

In arguing this point, Alford quotes passages from influential Chinese thinkers spanning several centuries. A passage in the Analects of Confucius states: "The Master [Confucius] said: I transmit rather than create; I believe in and love the Ancients" (bk 7, ch.1). More than a millennium later, As Wu Li (1631-1718) claimed that, "to paint without taking the Sung and Yuan masters as one's basis is like playing chess on an empty chessboard, without pieces" ([Alford1995] 28). Separated by epochs, both thinkers decry the idea of solitary artistic creation. To each, the organization and creation of new knowledge, literary or otherwise, must reach outward rather than inward.

Alford's examples are intriguing because they are employed not in the context of a discussion of Chinese literature but a discussion of intellectual property and control. Alford argues that Imperial Chinese literature was rooted in a conception of authorship that identified the author as a craftsman and a historian. Authors assembled and connected existing pieces of literature in the creation of new works; no good author, even one secluded in the woods, works alone. Consequently, originality was defined not in the context of a lack of influence but from a context of a rich meaningful interaction with existing knowledge. In the absence of a meaningful collaborative literary process—with authors both living and dead—Chinese authors were doomed to inefficacy and unoriginality. This attitude toward literature is summed up with Isaac Newton's famous phrase, "If I see further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants."

Alford's conclusion is that without free and unhindered ability to access and change the works of others, especially one's predecessors, this collaborative model of literary creation is impossible. As a result, the popular Imperial Chinese conception of authorship was incompatible with Western systems of control based on copyright and Romantic authorship. The relatively recent institution of copyright in China gives us a unique opportunity to explore collaborative artistic creation in the recent past and gain insight into the European history of creative models before the widespread adoption of modern systems of control. In simple terms, the Chinese experience demonstrates a model not dissimilar to one that Europeans enjoyed before the widespread adoption of copyright.

The Talmud

To western readers, a more familiar example of a collaboratively created text from antiquity is the Jewish Talmud. In its simplest form, the Talmud is a compilation of ancient Jewish law and lore created by large groups of Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis between the late first and seventh centuries A.D. As such, the text's relevance in the context of a discussion of collaborative creation and control needs no further justification. Still, the Talmud is particularly interesting because, as an important religious text, it's history is extremely well researched. However, unlike most other Holy texts, the collaborative nature of its creation is not downplayed in this research but is highlighted as essential to its form and function.

Pages of the Talmud, called folios, are separated into blocks and pieces. Many folios include the Mishna, or bits of traditional law, transmitted and altered orally for centuries until they was transcribed (into numerous differing copies) at some point before the middle of the sixth century ([Strack1972] 20). Flanking the Mishna on each folio are other texts, the majority of which constitute commentary and criticism. While much of the commentary is on the Mishna, a large portion of the Talmud is commentary on the commentaries.

Detailing the nature of the collaborative process that produced the Talmud is a tedious and confusing process attempted over centuries by historians and Talmudic scholars. Recently, these have included Hermann L. Strack, who published an English-language Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash. His books explain that it is clear that the creation of the Talmud spanned centuries, perhaps millennia, and in its current form represents the intellectual work of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbis, thinkers, and jurists.

As such, the Talmud, cultivated and created over centuries, is not the product of a single collaborative model. Until relatively recently, the Talmud was not even a single text. Strack argues that there was never a uniform text and that differences persisted and multiplied as the Talmud was rarely read or copied but more commonly recited from memory ([Strack1972] 77). Much of Strack's early history is concerned with tracing the oral transmission and growth of the law that eventually became the basis for the Talmud—a process that was inherently collaborative ([Strack1972] 8-25). The Talmudic model is one where, as is still the case today, criticism and commentary of the existing text is encouraged. However, unlike contemporary literary models, the best criticism was incorporated into the text itself. Although its form has now been frozen, the Talmud was designed to be a dynamic document—a written conversation over centuries.

The basis of the Talmud is law that belonged to all Jewish people. This law was based on concepts that were borrowed from other groups and cultures. While scholars have attempted to pin authorship for pieces of the Mishna on individual rabbis, they do not deny that it is the articulation of centuries of communal Jewish knowledge. It was able to grow and change with time (either intentionally or unintentionally through errors in memory) because it belonged to all Jews. As rabbis and thinkers wrote commentaries on the text and on commentaries of their predecessors' commentaries, they freely pulled from and added to the existing text. While, as in any discussion, clear attribution played an important role, control and ownership did not. The existence of divergent texts demonstrates that, over time, the book's audience felt free to modify the text to make it more effective and relevant.

In this way, the Talmud represents the early literary model of a text as a conversation. [1] In the case of the Talmud, this concept has persisted, to some degree, up until today. In his Invitation to the Talmud, Jacob Neusner repeatedly describes the Talmud as a discussion and invites his readers to join in the collaborative process by reading, unraveling, reshaping, revising, improving, recontextualizing, and then applying the concepts in the Talmud in their own lives ([Neusner1973] 26). He connects this invitation to conversation with the fact that "every Talmudic tractate ... begins on page 2; there are no page 1's because there is no beginning" ([Neusner1973] 29). With its conversational quality and with no beginning and (one must assume) no end, the Talmud exists as a text that is designed to be the product and material for a continuing collaborative process that ensures its continued organic growth.

While tradition, and perhaps changing conceptions of authorship, have frozen the text of the Talmud in its current state, its organic existence continues. Neusner's own book reproduces pages of the Talmud and engages in commentary and explication—it produces a new work with the existing texts and commentaries as its core. Unfortunately, bound by copyright and a strong system of control, Neusner's own work does not facilitate the same type of intra-textual criticism and commentary that it is based on.

The King James Version of the English Bible

While both Imperial Chinese literature and the Talmudic tradition ground themselves on collaborative processes modeled after a conversation between new and existing texts, these are hardly the only models of pre-copyright collaborative literature. Other models include texts that were explicitly designed to be "created by committee." Foremost among these examples is the King James Version of the English Bible (KJV). As such, if I had to highlight a single text in my response to the English professor mentioned in the introduction, it would be KJV.

The King James Version is a vernacular translation of the Bible, a book which is, humanly speaking, is a text of multiple and composite authorship on an unprecedented scale. The books of the Old and New Testaments are explicitly attributed to over forty men from a diverse range of backgrounds—from kings to laborers—writing from between 1500 B.C.E. through 97 C.E.[2] After only a glimpse of the collaborative processes behind the work, it comes as little surprise that many Christians refer to the product and process as a miraculous example of God's hand at work.

Given this rich collaborative foundation, it should come as little surprise that collaborative efforts have been employed in the most revered translations as well. This is evident in the paradigmatic case of the King James Version of the English Bible: the most popular Bible translation and, by many estimates, the single most influential text in the English literary canon. The collaborative process responsible for the KJV was already centuries underway when the translation was commanded by King James at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604.[3] At the end of a century that gave birth to six separate English Bible translations, King James, prompted by Dr. John Rainolds (also spelled Reynolds), President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, set the wheels in motion for the creation of yet another translation (Daiches 65). Several months later, King James informed English bishops that he had appointed "four and fifty men," (of whom we know the names of only forty-seven), and had called for suggestions, clarifications, or specific insight on Biblical passages from "learned men" anywhere in England.

The committee assembled was "catholic and intelligent on the whole, including most of the ablest men available, whether High Church or Puritan" (Daiches 67). This ideologically diverse group was divided into six sub-groups which met at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Each location housed a group translating the Old and New Testaments. The scholar translated the text individually and in small groups. Groups came to consensus on a rendering that was then forwarded to a final committee of revisers. This final committee referred to works in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Italian and other languages making use "of ancient and modern translations . . . and consulting the old manuscripts that were available" to arrive the most informed decision possible ([Gaebelien1924] 67-69).

The results of this process of creation by committee, while not an overnight success, were nothing short of astounding. Frank Gaebelein describes KJV as "the crown of our literature," and argues that the translation offers "one of those rare cases where superlatives are not only justified but demanded" ([Gaebelien1924] 22, 72). He goes on to describe it as "immortal poetry, enduring in beauty because it reflects so truly the inspired original" ([Gaebelien1924] 75). KJV is and continues to be the highest selling Bible translation worldwide.

KJV succeeded where Wycliffe's, Tyndale's, Bishops', and Matthew's Bibles failed because it employed more translators, more scholars, and more input from the greater educated community; its success was insured by its unprecedented collaborative creative process. Its position has only been challenged by translations that both incorporate the work of previous translators (including the KJV committee) and the work of large numbers of contemporary scholars.

The scholars producing KJV were funded through the system of honorarium mentioned previously. They borrowed at will from existing Bible translations and from their peers. The product of their work was the property of the entire community—neither they nor anyone else owned the translation. [4] KJV succeeded where singularly (or simply less collaboratively) authored translations failed because it was the product and process of intense collaboration. The freedom to collaborate not only ensured the persistant popularity of KJV over almost four centuries, but provided the foundation for several derivative translations including the popular Revised Version and the American Standard Version (ASV).

Conclusions about Pre-Copyright Authorship and Collaboration

KJV, the Talmud, and Imperial Chinese literature serve as impressive examples of the power of early collaborative processes. It is clear that the production of all three would be impossible by any individual. However, they are also symbols of the power of the unhindered access to information, knowledge, and existing works that facilitated their collaborative creation. Collaboration on the scale necessary to assemble the Talmud or KJV must be executed in an environment where the type of widespread borrowing and textual synthesis employed in the creation these texts is possible and even encouraged. Copyright and systemic control are fundamentally at odds with the type of freedoms necessary to produce such works.



Other examples of this model include the Glossa Ordinaria and the popular medieval genre of "annotations."


Ongoing scholarship suggests that many of these men, including Moses perhaps, may themselves be composites; it implies the hands of uncountable unattributed authors and unattributable traditional sources, lore, and legend. Of course, this is in addition to the role played by scholars acting as "editors" including the Septuagint (itself made up of 70 collaborators), Origen, Jerome, Eusebius and Augustine. Each helped give the text form by comparing and consolidating divergent copies in attempts to assemble a "true" version ([Gaebelien1924] 18). They represent a series of collaborative processes that lead up to the final text.


KJV is derived from the Geneva Bible (1560) and the Bishops Bible (1568) which in turn had The Great Bible (1539) and Matthews Bible (1537) as antecedents. Work antecedent to these includes translations by John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. The translations by both Wycliffe and Tyndale were themselves collaborative processes: Wycliffe's work was finished by collaborators after he was martyred and Tyndale's work assisted and eventually completed by John Rogus, Miles Coverdale and others. Pieces of KJV can be positively traced to the very first manuscript translations of the Bible into English.


While the King could control the printing of work by granting royal privileges to individual printers, even he was not the owner of any text.