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Lecture | Global Questions Seminar

Histories of Intellectual Property

Thursday 23 March 2023
Global Questions Seminar 2022-2023
Pieterskerkhof 6
2311 SR Leiden


What is the history of intellectual property? How should we study it and why does it matter? In the last thirty years or so, the history of copyright (and its corollary “piracy”) and the history of patents have benefited from a growing amount of interdisciplinary inquiry involving not only legal scholars but also historians, literary scholars, art historians, musicologists, and specialists of cultural and media studies. In many ways, this interdisciplinary interest reflects widespread concerns over how ongoing changes in information technology are reconfiguring social relations and raising new questions about authorship, property rights, and public access to information and culture of all kinds. And yet even in English-language scholarship, where a “law and humanities” approach may seem to be flourishing, it is not self-evident how the history of intellectual property relates to broader historiographic trends, or how research in this field contributes to our overall understanding of political, economic, and cultural change. This lecture will make the case that studying the history of intellectual property has a value beyond generating a more precise contextualist understanding of the development of the law (though that is also an important goal). After some general remarks about the field, it will focus on two areas of particular interest to the author – the circulation of information and the control of images – to suggest some of the ways that the history of intellectual property intersects with political, economic, and cultural history. In particular, several transition moments in the circulation of texts and images will be highlighted: the shift, during the long eighteenth century, from an early modern regime of printing privileges to a modern regime of individual property rights ; the mid to late nineteenth century, when the rise of photography and the spread of the telegraph challenged existing conceptions of authorship and intellectual property ; and the ongoing transition involving networked computers and the rise of artificial intelligence. With respect to the latter, it is of course too early to grasp the full implications of emerging practices, but the history of intellectual property may provide some basis for a productive discussion of the stakes and specificities of the present moment.

Will Slauter is a professor of history and American studies based in the English department at Sorbonne Université.  His research interests include the history of publishing, the history of news and information, and the history of copyright law. These interests came together in his book Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright (Stanford, 2019), which examined the relationship between intellectual property and journalism in Great Britain and the United States from the seventeenth century to the present. More recently, he has become interested in how intellectual property shapes the production and circulation of images. On this subject, he co-edited with Marie-Stéphanie Delamaire the open-access book Circulation and Control: Artistic Culture and Intellectual Property in the Nineteenth Century (Open Book Publishers, 2021), https://www.openbookpublishers.com/books/10.11647/obp.0247

Global Questions Seminar

The motto of the Institute for History’s research programme is ‘Global Questions, Local Sources’. Across all areas and time periods, researchers of the Institute focus on important processes such as migration, colonialism, urbanization, and identity formation.

TheGlobal Questions Seminar’, for which we invite distinguished international colleagues to discuss the interplay between global and local issues from the past, brings all staff members of the Institute for History together.

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