Authorship and Collective Culture Then and Now


Estefanía Tocado
Last year while I was working as a research assistant for a Spanish medievalist professor, I spent most of my time investigating a short inscription of the French version of “Prision of Love,” a bestseller in European courts in the 15th century.  As part of my research, I also had the opportunity to digitize a number of books ranging from the 13th century to 16th century from an old film into a digital copy.  While I was doing this task, it kept coming to my mind the idea that all that work and time that I was spending in the dark microfilm room at Lauinger library could have been of great use not only for my professor but for the entire medievalist community if we would have had the copyright laws to publish it on the internet or send to a digitized archive available online.  During that time, I often remembered how in the medieval times authorship and intellectual property was not considered to be something that relevant.  Despite that fact, not much later the figure of the author started to grow.  Nevertheless, authors in many cases did not have the need to claim their work since many times their work was also endowed to other sources (most of the times of classical origin) as a way to legitimize their value or it was a product of the work of more than one author.  In the specific case of the oral anonymous literary form of song poetry “Romancero,” a jongleur would recite it to a local audience eager to hear the juicy plots that often integrated universal topics such as love, revenge, family honor, confronted families, and regional wars.  Then the audience would retell the poem, or parts of the poem, to other members of the community, remembering the entire poem or maybe only the sections they found the most interesting.  That way, through oral retelling of the poems, the network of this literary-oral piece would spread out through communities, regions, and countries.  While this act of retelling the poems was taking place, the stories would suffer adaptations and modifications along the way.  It could be considered, if we extrapolate it to modern terminology, that the poems and the adapted versions were be part of the “collective and generative culture” of their time (Irvine).

In the recent years in the literary criticism field, highly influential intellectual figures such as Michel Foucault have questioned the figure of the author.  As a response to some of the work exposed by Roland Barthes in his article:  “The Death of the Author,” Foucault in his essay “What Is an Author?” questions the construction of authorship and the idea of authorship the way we inherited it from the eighteenth century (Jaszi 29-30).  Later on, scholars such as Peter Jazsi have asserted that the increasing interest in the figure of the author and its domains is based on the cultural figuration of the “author” as the creator of a unique piece of art, and this has interacted with the legal concept of the “author” and its legal property rights (30).  He has also affirmed that in many cases lawyers and judges in legal trials have used the idea of the author-genius derived from Romanticism as a valid claim to challenge copyright laws online.  It has been claimed that:  “computer programs are no less inspired on traditional literary works and the imaginative processes of a programmer are analogous to those of the literary author” (Jaszi 34).  In similar ways as it happened in the medieval oral culture and the “Romancero,” nowadays our main source of literary and artistic culture is called the “internet” and, as in many other cultural manifestations, is in constant renovation and creation of new meanings.  Despite all of the legal controversy related to the regulations of moral rights and intellectual property on the web, I believe that if we want to consider it a window to cultural production and distribution we may want to regard it as one more instrument available to mass population to generate popular culture instead of the individual work that cannot be shared.  Always within some limits and understanding that the “act of creating” has changed since Romanticism and accepting that, as SilviaO affirms in Lawrence Lessig´s book Remix, her voice has become one more instrument among others to remix and generate new ways to interact with individual work and its relationship to collective culture.  Maybe this is the first to step to conceive culture as a shared wealth as well as the “Romancero audiences” understood it back in the time (17).


Works Cited

Irvine, Martin. Communication, Culture, and Technology Department, Georgetown U, Sept. 2013. Web. 30 September 2013.

Jaszi, Peter. “On the Author Effect: Contemporary Copyright and Collective Creativity,”in The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature, ed. Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 29–56.

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. The Penguin Press: New York, 2008.