Copyrighting Shakespeare: Jacob Tonson, Eighteenth Century English Copyright, and the Birth of Shakespeare Scholarship
Posted: 27 Sep 2011 Last revised: 17 Nov 2020
Date Written: September 1, 2011
In 1709, Jacob Tonson, the premier publisher of his age, purchased the “copyright” to Shakespeare. Tonson and his family over the next fifty years went on to publish some of the most significant editions of the collected works of Shakespeare, edited by the likes of Nicholas Rowe, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson. In many ways, the Tonsons were responsible for the growth of Shakespeare’s popularity and the critical study of his work.
This article discusses the significance of copyright to the Tonsons’ publication decisions. It suggests that the Tonson copyright did not significantly “encourage” their contributions to Shakespeare scholarship. First, Jacob Tonson could not have relied on statutory copyright for protection of his seminal 1709 Rowe edition. Tonson, quite simply, did hold the copyrights at that point, and the Statute of Anne had not yet been introduced, let alone passed, by Parliament. Second, the Tonsons’ publication of later editions would not, as some have asserted, have perpetuated any common law or statutory copyright claim Tonson might have to the works of Shakespeare. Third, although the textual notes and comments contributed by his editors may have been copyrighted, most of the significant editorial contributions to Shakespeare scholarship would not themselves have been subject to copyright protection. Selection of plays in the legitimate Shakespeare canon, for example, and selection of the appropriate text from earlier quarto and Folio editions would not have been subject to copyright protection. Fourth, the expansion of public access to cheaper, more widely available editions of the Shakespeare plays arose in spite of, rather than because of, copyright protections. It was a challenge by a book “pirate” that caused the Tonsons, not to seek legal protection through their claimed copyright, but to flood the market with their own cheap editions of the plays.
Finally, the article suggests a reason why the Tonsons, whose name appears as plaintiff in many of the early copyright cases, never sought to litigate their claim to a copyright in Shakespeare. Simply put, litigating a claim to copyright in Shakespeare would have been a poor “test case” to secure what the Bookseller’s sought at that time – a perpetual common law copyright based on the natural rights of authors.
This article suggests that copyright issues, although certainly important, were ancillary to the Tonsons’ publication decisions. Market forces, the protections from competition afforded by a Bookseller cartel, and a respect for Shakespeare’s works, more than copyright protections, appeared to drive the Tonsons’ actions and therefore the growth of Shakespeare scholarship.
Keywords: copyright, Shakespeare
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