July 2010 | Jonathan Shipley

Who Owns Literature?


A Percy Shelley poem is discovered. It is an amazing find. The manuscript belongs to a bookseller. The bookseller owns the piece but do they own the contents on that piece of paper?

The Guardian weighs in...

As the dust settles after all the to-ing and fro-ing over Kafka's papers, it seems a good time to ask some questions about who, exactly, owns literature.

In most countries, property law means that people can take possession of manuscripts and, in some circumstances, a lone copy of a printed text. In these cases - where only one copy of the work exists - the owners of the manuscript also find themselves in possession of its literature. Yet the two things ought not to be conflated. We can easily envisage an owner owning a manuscript while we collectively own and know the piece of literature it contains. But in the case of the works of Kafka that are lying in those safes, we're not allowed to do that. Both the manuscripts and the literature are in the possession of the owners.

And of course, it's not the first time.

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