Public Domains: Print and the Commons in the 19th Century U.S.

Meredith McGill, Rutgers University

The nineteenth-century public domain was considerably broader than it is today. Not only were numerous texts uncopyrightable, either by law or by custom (including foreign works, newspapers, magazines, government publications, broadsides, sermons, and addresses), state enforcement of copyrights was lax, and evidence of legal title was often conjectural—asserted or taken on faith rather than backed by adherence to rules of registration and deposit. And yet nineteenth-century print culture was not an ungovernable free-for-all. Literary properties that were unprotected by copyright were often staked out and defended by other means; the print public sphere developed regulatory norms outside of or in lieu of formal legal protection.

This seminar invites papers that reflect on the nature and limits of the nineteenth-century public domain, with particular attention to how texts circulated and literary culture operated with only partial and uneven recourse to copyright. What happens to our literary and cultural histories when we privilege genres and modes of publication that ordinarily fell outside of copyright protection, such as adaptations, abridgements, “fugitive poems,” and popular melodramas? Was there a public domain before copyright was broadly accepted as a global standard or does it make more sense to think in terms of multiple, intersecting or overlapping public domains? How might the informal regulatory norms common to nineteenth-century publishing be brought to bear on the problems that beset twenty-first century publishing?

Meredith L. McGill has written widely on intellectual property and nineteenth-century American culture, including American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-53 (UPenn, 2003), two overview essays for A History of the Book in America (UNC, 2010), and a “State of the Discipline” essay for Book History 14 (2013). She is the editor of The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange (Rutgers, 2008) and Taking Liberties with the Author: Selected Essays from the English Institute (ACLS Humanities e-Book, 2013).


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