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Fresh Look at Intellectual Property Puts Borrowing, Sampling and Plagiarism in Historical Context

The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination (Cornell University Press, June 2003), written by Paul K. Saint-Amour, a professor of English at Pomona College, addresses the current status of copyright law, along with its political and personal consequences, and explores the somewhat problematic issues of intellectual property, plagiarism, and originality, placing recent high-stakes copyright issues in historical context.

News events such as the court battle of the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which extends copyright terms by 20 years, the patenting of the human genome and of genetically altered seed lines, and controversies over literary parody have increased public awareness of intellectual property law.

Saint-Amour focuses on the period 1830-1930 as a time when literature became aware of its status as intellectual property and began to include this realization in the various aspects of character, plot and structure. He revisits major works by Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, among others, highlighting the ways in which authors in this period were masters of the “art of scissors and paste,” borrowing material from other published works without acknowledgement. Other primary sources include Victorian political economy, and periodical articles about plagiarism, nineteenth-century poetic cantos, and the minutes of the 1876-78 Royal Commission on Copyright. All of these texts serve to suggest the intriguing question: Would art from this period have survived the copyright laws of the new millennium?

“The property-status of language is a central and under-theorized feature of modernity in Western print cultures,” Saint-Amour claims, “and the literature of the period of copyright’s consolidation registers this nascent status.”

Saint-Amour is a professor of English at Pomona College. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, and his undergraduate degree from Yale. His articles have been featured in the James Joyce Quarterly, the Henry James Review, Modernism/Modernity, Diacritics, and Nineteenth-Century Literature. The Copywrights is his first book.

To request a review copy of the book, contact Jonathan Hall at Cornell University Press at

For more about Saint-Amour, read his Pomona College Faculty Profile.

Pomona College is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts institutions, offering a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.