Shakespeare would thrive in a world with copyright.


I saw it again the other day. In a sarcastic tweet that flew by. A familiar theme. Without naming names, it said something like this: As if creativity didn’t exist before 1709. There was no Shakespeare.

For one thing, this is the kind of pugnacious statement that I can’t believe ever informs the copyright debate. Because I don’t know anyone who asserts that creativity did not exist before copyright. Creativity existed in pre-homo-sapiens. But so what? That fact is as useful to a discussion about contemporary life as observing that eating predates cooking.  True but ick.

The year 1709 is of course a reference to England’s Statute of Anne, which is identified as the precursor to modern copyright law because that legislation was the first to grant exclusive rights in written works to authors rather than publishers. And if it is sufficient for some to condense four centuries of history since Shakespeare’s death into a single tweet, maybe this reveals something about those who both say and believe unexamined statements that invoke the Bard as exemplary of copyright’s irrelevance. In particular, this line of reasoning makes two fundamental mistakes.  The first is one of overstating the extent to which Shakespeare relied upon borrowing; and the second is one of understating the significance of the idea/expression dichotomy in copyright law, which dictates that ideas may not be copyrighted and only unique expressions may be.

As explained in a previous post, the reason Shakespeare and his contemporaries so often borrowed, or even outright plagiarized, existing work had a great deal to do with the exigencies of producing high-volume, high-speed theater in 16th-century England and little to do with the abilities of the writers themselves to be inventive. Had the Arthur Brooke estate, for instance, owned a copyright on The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet, everything we know about Shakespeare’s gifts implies that he had both the talent and the desire to work around this relatively minor creative barrier. Moreover, the result would almost certainly have been a more distinctive play than Romeo & Juliet. After all, Brooke would not have owned the idea of ill-fated lovers, just his own expression of it.

The idea/expression dichotomy is the reason why a large volume of works can share many qualities with one another and still remain distinctive enough to be considered individually “original” and, therefore, separately copyrightable. And in the generalized debate—especially when it’s made tweet-sized—I think people fail to recognize just how subtle the distinctions among works can be in order to render them non-infringing upon one another. Combine this error with a glancing knowledge of Shakespeare, and it’s easy to make The Bard into an unwitting poster child for the importance of borrowing or building upon prior works.

Part of Shakespeare’s genius—as historian Bill Bryson puts it—was to “…take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and, very often, greatness.” The manner in which he achieved distinction and occasional greatness was both by invention (e.g. a plot device here, a twist on an idea there) and by his remarkable ability to produce indelible sounds from the fledgling English language. If we were to keep his raw talent intact, remove the political, social, and economic barriers of his time, and replace these instead with only the boundaries of modern copyright, Shakespeare’s ability to draw upon source elements and make them uniquely his own suggests that he would have done quite well in such a regime.  To put that in a contemporary context, if author E.L. James is skilled enough to adapt her Twilight fanfic into the separately copyrightable 50 Shades of Grey, I think it’s fair to say that Shakespeare would be up to a similar task.

To Bryson’s point, we should view Shakespeare as already wrangling with the idea/expression dichotomy by revising existing notions and elements into richer expressions than they had been.  Like any artist, we see him working around the barriers of his own internal aesthetics and sensibilities. And by contrast, the external barriers of copyright are quite minimal to the author, which is why this entire line of criticism doesn’t tend to come from creators and artists themselves. Perhaps more relevant to my initial point, though, is the fact that a great deal of Shakespeare’s often-exaggerated “borrowing” would be consistent with copyright anyway. This would likely be the case with all of the history plays or certainly with plot devices taken from ancients like Plautus, who died in 185 BC.  There’s a lot more to Shakespeare than Romeo & Juliet, and we have far more reason to imagine that he would thrive in a world with copyrights than to assume that he would wither.

It’s just too easy to conjure Shakespeare as a lofty trope of literary brilliance and then assume that the works as we know them are now fossilized in the only form they could ever have taken. No one who has ever created anything would make this mistake because the end product is almost never the only way the process could have gone. If Shakespeare had both copyright and free speech, it is more rational to expect that he would have been even more prolific and profound than it is to imagine that he would have produced less—or nothing. As it stands, he was modestly prolific by both 16th-century and contemporary measures. Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller—to name a few—all wrote more than Shakespeare and all certainly worked in a world with copyrights. So, of course creativity itself predates copyright law; but invoking Shakespeare — though it may seem counter-intuitive — only suggests that creativity was weaker without it.

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