Collaboration During the Birth and Early Life of Copyright

As I mentioned in my introduction, the Statute of Anne in 1710 did not mark an instantaneous shift in attitudes toward authorship and artistic creation. At its birth, copyright was lobbied for and designed to benefit publishers alone. For at least the first century of its institution, authors continued to write in the ways they had before. They borrowed as they had before; they collaborated as they had before; they plagiarized as they had before. Collaboration in the forms popularized before the institution of copyright remained popular.

However, by selling the rights to their ideas, authors were presented with a new system of compensation for their work: a way to "live by their pen." They realized that by solidifying their access to these rights, they might insure their ability to make a living. This coincided, and was intimately connected, with the explosive growth of the publishing industry in Europe. Authors felt they needed to insure compensation for their intellectual productions and saw their copyright, described in the Statute of Anne and similar acts in other countries, as an available method for achieving this goal.

To emphasize the importance of copyright—which was initially created in the service of publishers—authors, led by Romantic poets in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, introduced a new conception of authorship. These authors must have been aware that the collaborative nature of their literary production sat in direct opposition to calls for the institutionalization of control systems justified by conceptions of Romantic authorship. Perhaps authorship was defined in terms relative to the previous system of unhindered borrowing and collaboration. In any case, these authors seemed comfortable with the hypocrisy of their position.

John Keats

Keats was one such poet who espoused a Romantic conception of authorship while employing collaborative practices in the creation of his poems. Keats explicitly placed his poetry within a larger social context of its creation, revision, reception and influence. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the mechanisms for collaborative writing took explicit form in the creation of coterie groups of authors that acted as forums for idea interchange, discussion, manuscript circulation, critique and small-scale publishing.[1]

Steeped in this culture of collaboration, Keats himself was influential in the creation, promotion, and continuation of several such groups. The most famous, and consequently most well documented, is the now famous "Cockney School" that included, at different times in its life, the company of Shelly, Byron, Keats, Hunt, Reynolds, Smith and Hazlitt. Through their letters and correspondence, it is clear that each of these poets turned to associations and interactions within the group as a means of cultural production ([Cox1998] 4). While the nature of the association was unstated, unclear, and inconsistent—some shared, borrowed, or took advantage of the association more than others—we know that this group of artists, writers, and intellectuals conceived of itself as a coherent circle, "something between a manuscript coterie circle . . . and [a] kind of self-consciously avant-grade movement" ([Cox1998] 20-21).

We also know that Leigh Hunt provided the nexus around which the group was organized. Hunt published several journals, most notable of which was The Examiner, organized coterie meetings, played host to poets, artists and intellectuals and ran his much maligned sonnet contests to encourage the creation and critique of new works. In each of these ways, Hunt provided a public space for the discussion and exchange of idea necessary for his ideal literary process, one that took part in a social sphere ([Cox1998] 7). The group's collective work included the production of commonplace books, collaborative projects, and "contest" poems as well as major individually attributed efforts which were executed in the context, and with the assistance, of the members of the group through a system of manuscript circulation and revision.[2]

The influence of members of this group on each other is described in detail by Jeffrey N. Cox in Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School in a thorough analysis of themes, images, characters and plots shared between members of the group and through explicit affiliation in dedications and inter-textual references. For example, Cox describes connections from every poem in Keats' 1817 Poems to at least one other member of the group. He draws parallels along ideas that occurred in different members poems, especially political ones, and employs evidence of political, economic, and literary support between group members ([Cox1998] 84).

While Cox's book acts as an analysis of the collaborative relationships that gave birth to the ideas and themes behind Keats' poetry, Jack Stillinger, in Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius, explores the nature of the collaborative system of revision and production at play in the stylistic creation and evolution of Keats' Sonnet to Sleep and Isabella. In both cases, Keats' friends and publishers were instrumental in the creation of the finished product ([Stillinger1991] 17-21, 29-45). Isabella, with a nearly exhaustive set of revisions available to historians, provides a particularly useful example of the collaborative processes at work in Keats' poetry.

Isabella was written and then revised once by Keats with the input from friends and colleagues including J. H. Reynolds. It was then passed to Richard Woodhouse who originally copied the poem into shorthand before re-expanding it and introducing several changes in wording and punctuation in the process. Woodhouse subsequently revised it twice. Woodhouse's second version served as the printer's copy when the poem was first published ([Stillinger1991] 26-29). Handwriting from the poem's printer, John Taylor, is also visible in the final manuscript version ([Stillinger1991] 29). Keats' collaborators made additions, deletions, rewordings and wholesale rewritings while prompting Keats to make other revisions on his own ([Stillinger1991] 34). These revisions were often made independently—and perhaps divergently—of Keats' surmisable intentions ([Stillinger1991] 39). Other alterations appear to have been made by Keats, Woodhouse, and Taylor working together ([Stillinger1991] 44). The contributions were so substantial and the contributors so passionate and involved that Stillinger claims the collaborators demonstrated a proprietary interest in the work.

Stillinger notes that while none of Keats' collaborators' changes deal with theme, character, or plot, it is the stylist nature of the poetry they focused on that makes up the acknowledged, "Keatsian" qualities of the work ([Stillinger1991] 30). Cox argue that Keats' association with the Cockney School reveal that the theme, character, plot and messages of Keats poem are also rooted in collaborative associations. If readers are to believe both Cox and Stillinger, as I believe is warranted, we must approach Keats as having communicated collaboratively conceived messages and themes through collaborative mechanisms.

This is a far cry from the ideal of Romantic authorship usually attributed to Keats and his contemporaries. Many Romantic scholars have attempted to downplay both the importance of the coterie process and the role of the collaborative revisions. In some cases, they've gone so far as to blame Keats' early or weaker poetry on collective processes while elevating his later work as the product of his unrestrained Romantic individualism ([Cox1998] 13). In reality, Keats' collaborative relationships played such an essential role throughout his creative life, that he returned to live with Hunt, his primary collaborator, during his final illness ([Cox1998] 84).

As Keats penned his poems, copyright had already begun to enshrine the concept of Romantic authorship. As a result, Keats, while he worked in massively collaborative processes, took sole responsibility for the texts. At the time, his close literary associations and his collaborative relationships with friends and publishers were unstated because they were assumed; there was an acknowledged discrepancy between the way authors created and the way they drafted their bylines. Authors saw nothing wrong with gaining compensation through false or exaggerated claims of individual authorship; that was simply how things were done. However, this unwritten information has been lost with time or simply ignored by critics and scholars. It is only through recent historical work by researchers like Cox and Stillinger that the collaborative nature of Keats work has been revealed.

As a result of this type of research, Keats' widespread collaboration becomes evident. It is also clear that the collaborative processes were facilitated through Keats' lack of control over the poems. While Keats had a limited copyright to this work, he showed little interest in and demonstrated little control over texts themselves. He "almost certainly" did not read the final printers proofs—with full knowledge that his printer made editorial and stylist changes. This attitude, unsurprising in a literary culture steeped in collaboration, allowed Keats' collaborators unhindered access to the poetry and cultivated the culture of collaboration and critique that made the type of cooperation possible that helped Keats create to his best ability—one greater than Keats working alone.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

This culture of cooperation is mirrored in the literary lives of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth a generation before. Like Keats, the pair produced many of their literary works through intensely collaborative methods. Also like Keats, criticism steeped in the ideology of Romantic authorship has attempted to dismiss the importance of collaboration in their work. Unlike Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge played a huge role in the Romanticization of their poetry and processes. Wordsworth promoted the ideal of Romantic authorship emphatically and is largely responsible for the Romantic lens through which critics now view his work.

That said, Lyrical Ballads, with poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge, is probably the most famous coauthored book in the English language. The idea of collaboration by Wordsworth, generally viewed to be one of the most original English authors and often credited with the success and dominance of Romanticism, is difficult for some critics to understand ([Stillinger1991] 96). In fact, they are not alone: Wordsworth himself seemed to have difficulty reconciling his own coauthorship as the book was first published anonymously in 1798 with more than ten references to a single author in the books advertisement. In the three subsequent editions, the byline remained singular and, when it finally mentioned "the assistance of a friend," it did so without mentioning Coleridge's name. Coleridge's name was not connected to Lyrical Ballads's first poem, his own The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, until almost two decades later when it was published in a separate collection ([Stillinger1991] 70).

While Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the story was developed by Wordsworth and Coleridge collaboratively with Wordsworth providing a rough version of a themes and some major plot elements. In a similar way, Coleridge claimed credit for half the preface to Lyrical Ballads ([Stillinger1991] 71). Additional collaborators on the book included Thomas De Quincy and Humphrey Davy, a friend of Coleridge, who each made significant contributions to the work in the role of editors while Wordsworth's willing amanuenses probably played no insignificant role in the shaping of the text ([Stillinger1991] 71). This of course, does not begin to discuss the literary influences on Coleridge and Wordsworth, particularly Milton, or the role these influences played in shaping, inspiring, or directing the text. One additional, and additionally interesting, source of inspiration for Wordsworth was Dorothy Wordsworth's journals. Her Alfoxden Journal of 1709 and the Grasmere Journals of 1800 and 1802 contain passages that many critics believe Wordsworth employed as the basis for all or parts of Beggars, Resolution and Independence, I wandered lonely as a cloud, and a number of other poems and passages ([Stillinger1991] 72). All of these pieces were appropriated and published without acknowledgment.

Coleridge, for his part, was famous, perhaps infamous, for his borrowings from other authors. Convincing arguments have been made that Coleridge's Frost and Midnight attempts to mimic, either for reproductive, synthetic, or critical purposes, a poem from William Cowper's The Task ([Stillinger1991] 101-103). More interestingly, and problematically for Coleridge's scholars and defenders, are Coleridge's unacknowledged borrowings, often in the form word-for-word translations or direct paraphrases, of large sections of writings by German philosophers, most notably Schelling, in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria. Surveys of the Biographia and antecedent literature have shown that up to twenty-five percent of the text is lifted, to one degree or another, without attribution from German sources; the figure reaches as high as thirty to forty percent in several chapters ([Stillinger1991] 104).

While Coleridge was attacked for his plagiarisms by his friends and during his lifetime, his supporters, like G. N. G. Orsinis, have defended Coleridge with the justification that "a genius can be creative even when he is borrowing" ([Stillinger1991] 105, 107). While this exposition of collaboration is in complete agreement, their argument is, after all, one that much of this essay echos and affirms, the defense is uncharacteristic, perhaps even incompatible, with the Romantic notions of authorship that both Coleridge and his defenders embrace and espouse.

However awkward, Coleridge's plagiarism seems somehow congruous with his famous, and famously hidden, collaboration with Wordsworth on Lyrical Ballads. Historical research has established that the decision to attribute Lyrical Ballads to a single anonymous author, and then to withhold acknowledgment of Coleridge's contributions for three subsequent editions, was a decision to which both of the books authors agreed ([Stillinger1991] 70). Both authors realized that the need to claim copyright and gain compensation was simplified and strengthened by exaggerated or falsified claims of singular authorship. As much as Wordsworth espoused his ideal of a Romantic genius, perched alone in the wilderness, drawing all creative inspiration from within, it was not a description of a method of creative production that even he employed consistently.

Reconciling the conflict between the Romantics' professed ideologies and their actions can be difficult. By speaking in Parliament for the creation of authors' natural rights, Wordsworth was attempting to manipulate the connection between Romantic authorship and legal mechanisms of textual control and ownership; Romantic authorship was, from its birth, intertwined with the politics of copyright. But there remains a deep irony in that the processes that allowed Wordsworth and Coleridge to demonstrate their greatest achievements as creative or artistic geniuses, easily the strongest evidence for their claims, were collaborative. By dropping Coleridge from the byline of Lyrical Ballads, by failing to acknowledge Dorothy Wordsworth's contributions, and by omitting reference to Scheller's role in Biographia Libraria, Coleridge and Wordsworth make the shortcomings of a system based on their concept of authorship and strong individual control abundantly clear. Modern readers must assume that, raised in a literary culture of assimilation, borrowing and critique, the Romantics considered this attitude a necessary and acceptable hypocrisy for those aiming to "live by their pen."

During the Shift Conclusion

These problems of attribution are representative of the first century of copyright and the first awkward legal steps into the discourse of Romantic authorship. They provide a window to the types of contradictions and clashes between persistent collaboration, Romantic authorship, and systems of ownership. Over time, the popularization of Wordsworth's ideal authorship has strengthened and reinforced copyright to the detriment of collaboration. Contemporary authors must conceive of themselves in Wordsworth's terms but cannot collaborate in the same unapologetic fashion in the context of more rigid technological, social, and legal systems of control. As the publishing industry has been reshaped by these powerful and lucrative systems of control reinforced by the discourse of Romantic authorship, the contradictions that Wordsworth and his contemporaries happily ignored have shaped the dominant systems of literary production.



Deciding what level and type of interaction defines a "group" and the level and type of affiliation that inclusion implies is an important job but not one that I will attempt in this essay. In his introduction to the Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School, Jeffrey N. Cox discusses and defines groups and then argues that the Cockney School does indeed qualify as such an organization of writers.


Commonplace books were books in which records were made of things to be remembered and which formed an extremely popular, if personal, genre during the Renaissance and the following centuries. When a reader discovered a passage or poem that they found particularly appealing, they would transcribe it into their commonplace book. These books represented an important mechanism and document of the type of influence, information exchange, and collaboration in the period.