Authorship is a cultural, social, and legal status granted to certain (often textual) manifestations of discourse, whose regulatory function necessarily impacts the flow of information by granting material rewards (i.e., social recognition, monetary benefits, prestige) and punishments (i.e., legally and/or ethically sanctioned adjudications) to maintain its function in a society. I see authorship as an umbrella term bound up with many other knotty concepts—property, originality, ownership, sharing. In effect, authorship very much undergirds the politics of writing, both in the academy and outside of it, by asking questions such as the following: Who gets granted status? What structures allow for such recognition? What blocks or thwarts thinking and exchange? These questions, as I see them, are inherently tied to social justice.
The Death of the Author, The Birth of a Field
Authorship studies, if we can give name to such an enterprise, gained traction in the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s. And it is no surprise as to why. This intellectual moment marked the heyday of poststructuralist and postmodernist thought, which began to pose serious challenges to the then-hitherto stable notion of the Author. Roland Barthes famously proclaimed its death; Michel Foucault issued a call to examine its disciplinary function. Ever since, as U.S. scholars began to take up postmodernist views of subjectivity, they began, in Foucault’s trajectory, to study the historical conditions that gave birth to this modern view of the author, whose semantic web is made up of terms such as autonomy, originary, genius, property, male. How did this become so?
Although most historical accounts of authorship begin with Barthes and Foucault to claim theoretical gravitas, the “birth” of the author occurred about two centuries before their essays were published. Still, as Martha Woodmansee puts it, the figure of the author “in its modern sense is a relatively new invention” (426). In the 1980s, scholars like Woodmansee and Mark Rose began to trace the cultural, political, legal, and technological landscape in which this new invention took shape. (Note: these scholars are working with an inherently Western view of authorship).
Woodmansee’s analysis places the inception of the author in 18th-Century Germany and Great Britain. Woodmansee details the theoretical views on the author that dominated the first half of the 18th Century. These views were markedly different than the ones later in the century, which largely still linger today. She notes that the concept of the author was bound to two distinct conceptions—first, authors as craftsmen (that is, as individuals manipulating materials at hand for a new audience) and second, authors as inspired by God or some muse. For both of these conceptions, writes Woodmansee, the author is seen as a vehicle, one who does not have full control of his/her writings. Later in the 18th-Century, prominent theorists of the time (i.e., William Wordsworth and Edward Young) began to re-work these ideas by downplaying the element of craftsmanship and reworking the source of inspiration to that of the self. The notion of genius, in effect, was ready to take root.
But these intellectual changes were not the only factors that solidified the place of the originary author in Western contexts. Other changes, Woodmansee notes, include the growth of a reading public vis-à-vis the printing press and the birth of a new profession, the writer. Mark Rose’s analysis of intellectual property developments in 18th-Century England similarly traces the historical conditions that worked to naturalize the author as we know it today. For Rose, the concept of the author is very much tied our economic system—and this tie, says Rose, was born out of the implementation of copyright laws. In other words, due to the evolution of copyright laws, we have been primed to attribute a key characteristic to the work of authors—proprietorship. As Rose notes, “the author is conceived as the originator and therefore the owner of a special kind of commodity, the work” (1). Therefore, copyright “helps produce and affirm the very identity of the author as author” (2). And so characterizes Rose’s central argument: the modern conception of authorship, as flawed as it might be, is difficult to shake. It is very much tied to our economic systems and to our conceptions of self.
Much has occurred since the flurry of disciplinary scholarship on authorship in the 1980s/90s—both in terms of theoretical advancement and structural changes that (often tacitly) impacts Western notions of authorship. I want to note, though, that my brief history above is illuminating from a disciplinary standpoint. That is, authorship can be interrogated from a number of angles—from a theoretical perspective (i.e., What is an author?), from an historical perspective (i.e., What material, cultural, legal, and technological perspectives have shaped our modern conception of the author?), and from a pragmatic perspective (i.e., What do these histories and theories tell us about authorship today? What works are endowed with the status of an author?) .
Before turning to more recent developments of authorship, I want to also note that the historical framework sketched above is important for the development of authorship as a sub-field of study in rhetoric and composition. Since the above works were published, rhetoric and composition scholars have invoked authorship—especially its regulatory function—to talk about a number of issues within writing studies. Indeed, authorship regularly gets paired with other writing concepts: authorship/collaboration (Lunsford & Ede; Howard), authorship/plagiarism (Howard, Randall), authorship/intellectual property (DeVoss & Porter; Logie; Reyman), authorship/invention (Rife; Reid), authorship/remix (Ridolfo & DeVoss; Johnson-Eilola & Selber).
Enter the digital. Enter what Yochai Benkler calls the networked information economy. Enter the Napster crisis and the so-called free culture movement. Enter what James Boyle calls the second enclosure movement of the mind. Indeed, after the flood of postmodern scholarly work that sought to disassemble authorship as it was inherited from the 18th-Century, another flurry of scholarship began to take shape. And its battleground took place—and is taking place—on the Internet.
Interestingly, web-based digital technologies saw a growth in both a participatory culture (Jenkins), where everyday people began to remix and redistribute existing content at growing rates, and a lock down on creativity (Lessig), where corporate authors (Lunsford; Reyman) began to stifle everyday composers’ inventive capacities by claiming sole ownership of their works. In other words, though the capacity to appropriate and re-distribute works already in circulation grew with the advent of the Internet (especially with Web 2.0), so too did regulation mandates—both in terms of law and code—that often benefited the interests of big media companies.
Lawrence Lessig argued in 2004 that “the future of copyright law [is] not so much copyright law as copyright code. The controls over access to content will not be controls that are ratified by courts; the controls over access to content will be controls that are coded by programmers” (152). If you have ever uploaded content to YouTube, you likely can appreciate the weight of Lessig’s point. When uploading a video to the Google-owned video distribution site, all videos are run through its Content ID system. As YouTube explains, “copyright owners can use…Content ID to easily identify and manage their content on YouTube. Videos uploaded to YouTube are scanned against a database of files that have been submitted to us by content owners. Copyright owners get to decide what happens when content in a video on YouTube matches the content they own” (n.p.). What this means is that critical remixes that are transformative (Aufderheide & Jaszi) in their redeployment of source materials can be flagged as copyrighted material and, depending on the content creators discretion, is thus made unavailable for public reuse.
This clearly represents an unbalanced view of copyright, one that reinforces the dominant view of authorship that has been embedded in our culture for some time now.
Where to Go From Here?
In her excellent and comprehensive book on the rhetoric of IP, Jessica Reyman draws on Michel Foucault’s notion of resistance to argue for a bright(er) intellectual property future. In other words, Reyman argues that we need to mobilize multiple sites of resistance to forward a new rhetoric of authorship. Indeed, we need a multi-pronged approach that promotes a balanced view of copyright (Vaidhyananthan) and a just notion of authorship, one that “rejects the naïve construction of author as originary genius or as entrepreneurial corporate entity, without diminishing the importance of agency, and of difference, to lives of working writers” (Lunsford 534).
How do we—scholars of rhetoric, teachers of writing, and users and (re)distributors or media—go about enacting this call? Although many scholars have excellent suggestions (see especially Reyman and Aufderheide & Jaszi), and although I think we often enact tactical resistance in our everyday practices, I also think it’s important to pluralize authorship (a move Rebecca Moore Howard has made). Recognizing that there are many types of authorships—or perhaps more provocatively, many types of counterauthorships—elucidates how legal discourse, technological developments, and pedagogical practices often work to reify a vision of authorship that privileges certain writing practices over others. How can we bring to light counterauthorships? What ethic guides them? And how might tracing them provide another point of resistance? I save these questions for another blog post.
Aufderheide, Patricia, and Peter Jaszi. Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright. U Chicago P, 2011
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Macmillan, 1977. 142-149.
Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.
Boyle, James. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009.
DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole, and James E. Porter. “Why Napster Matters to Writing: Filesharing as a New Ethic of Digital Delivery.” Computers and Composition 23.2 (2006): 178-210.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author.” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rainbow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 101-120.
Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford: Albex, 1999.
Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MIT P, 2009.
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan, and Stuart A. Selber. “Plagiarism, Originality, Assemblage.” Computers and Composition 24.4 (2007): 375-403.
Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin, 2004.
Logie, John. Peers, Pirates, and Persuasion: Rhetoric in the Peer-to-Peer Debates. West Lafayette: Parlor P, 2006.
Lunsford, Andrea Abernethy. “Rhetoric, Feminism, and the Politics of Textual Ownership.” College English 61 (1999): 529-544.
Lunsford, Andrea A., and Lisa Ede. Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing Carbondale: SIU P, 1990.
Randall, Marilyn. Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit, and Power. U Toronto P, 2001.
Reid, Alex. The Two Virtuals: New Media and Composition. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor P, 2007.
Reyman, Jessica. The Rhetoric of Intellectual Property: Copyright Law and the Regulation of Digital Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Rife, Martine Courant. Invention, Copyright, and Digital Writing. Carbondale: SIU P, 2013.
Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Harvard UP, 1993.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. NYU P, 2003.
Woodmansee, Martha. “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author’.” Eighteenth Century Studies (1984): 425-448.