Who Owns This Sentence?
A History of Copyrights and Wrongs
by David Bellos, Alexandre Montagu
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Pub Date 23 Jan 2024 | Archive Date 31 Dec 2023
A fascinating and original history of an idea that now controls and monetizes almost everything we do.
Copyright is everywhere. Your smartphone incorporates thousands of items of intellectual property. Someone owns the reproduction rights to photographs of your dining table. At this very moment, battles are raging over copyright in the output of artificial intelligence programs. Not only books but wallpaper, computer programs, pop songs, cartoon characters, snapshots, and cuddly toys are now deemed to be intellectual properties—making copyright a labyrinthine construction of laws with colorful and often baffling rationales covering almost all products of human creativity.
It wasn’t always so. Copyright has its roots in eighteenth-century London, where it was first established to limit printers’ control of books. But a handful of little-noticed changes in the late twentieth century brought about a new enclosure of the cultural commons, concentrating ownership of immaterial goods in very few hands. Copyright’s metastasis can’t be understood without knowing its backstory, a long tangle of high ideals, low greed, opportunism, and word-mangling that allowed poems and novels (and now, even ringtones and databases) to be treated as if they were no different from farms and houses. Principled arguments against copyright arose from the start and nearly abolished it in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, countless revisions have made copyright ever stronger.
Who Owns This Sentence? is an often-humorous and always-enlightening cultural, legal, and global history of the idea that intangible things can be owned, and makes a persuasive case for seeing copyright as an engine of inequality in the twenty-first century.
About the Authors: David Bellos, the Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, is an award-winning translator and biographer and the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? and The Novel of the Century.
Alexandre Montagu is a practicing lawyer and the founding partner of MontaguLaw, which focuses on intellectual property law, international commercial transactions, and new media commercial and corporate law.
"By turns painstaking and playful, Bellos and Montagu reveal the patchwork of laws, norms, and assumptions that have transformed ideas into property. Copyright is no longer just about authors and the right to benefit from their work, but about big business and even bigger profits. Theirs is a compelling call to address the privatization of the global imagination." - Emily Drabinski, President, American Library Association
"The story of copyright has many moving parts: history, literature, economics, politics, policy, and technology. Each element gets a closeup in this expertly told story of the evolution of copyright. In a time when billions of words are used to train AI models, this engaging and instructive book tells how different eras and countries have struggled with the challenge of defining ownership of texts." - James T. Hamilton, Hearst Professor of Communication, Stanford University
"Bellos and Montagu’s astonishingly capacious narrative is a gripping detective story, a flamboyant intellectual history, and a passionate manifesto for creative freedom, all rolled into one. You’ll never think about copyright in the same way again." - Fara Dabhoiwala, historian and senior research scholar, Princeton University
"We often think of copyright as a form of justice, a means of ensuring that creators rather than pirates of works receive whatever compensation is on offer. This witty, informed and timely book urgently invites us to think otherwise. Copyright, the authors tell us, ‘means more than it ever did before.’ It takes in books, films, sheet music, computer programs and many other inventions, and yet it in the end ‘it is an edifice of words.’ This detailed history makes very lively reading, and also encourages action, since we could, if we wished, use different words." - Michael Wood, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, Princeton University
"In this madcap history from Plato to Donald Duck, from feudal Europe to Facebook, David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu have written the definitive account of where copyright came from and why it looks the way it does. Who Owns This Sentence? belongs on the bookshelf of every creator, producer, policymaker, and consumer." - Jason Mazzone, Albert E. Jenner, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Illinois
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Average rating from 9 members
This book is a history of the development of intellectual property and copyright. It is not a guide on how to apply those rules to current situations. If you like history or want to better understand the underpinnings of copyright, and you aren't a lawyer looking for lawyer-level treatment, this book is a well-written, interesting exploration. I keep stopping peers in the library where I work and telling them interesting tidbits from the book. They all seem fascinated and want to know what I'm reading. I'm recommending this to many in casual conversations already.