2019 Book Prize Finalist - Matthew H. Birkhold

Matthew H. Birkhold. Characters before Copyright: The Rise and RegulaMatthew Birkhold Characters Before Copyrighttion of Fan Fiction in Eighteenth-Century Germany. (Oxford University Press)

Situated between the decline of the privilege system and the rise of copyright, literary borrowing in eighteenth-century Germany has long been characterized as unregulated. Studying fan fiction, however, reveals an array of tacit rules governing the creation and consumption of literature, while also uncovering conceptions of literary property and authorship that scholars have overlooked. Characters before Copyright: The Rise and Regulation of Fan Fiction in Eighteenth-Century Germany is the first in-depth study of the history of fan fiction--literary works written by readers who appropriate pre-existing characters invented by other authors.

What's the one key idea or message you want readers to take from your book?

Literary borrowing, at least when authors used pre-existing fictional characters, was not an unregulated practice in eighteenth-century Germany. Although robust intellectual property laws did not yet exist, a set of customary norms governed these writing practices. Today, legal scholars often bemoan the increasing regulation of the “creative commons” and insist that we are leaving behind our tradition of “free culture,” when creators could use whatever they wanted. Characters before Copyright shows that even before the invention of copyright, there was no such thing as “free culture” when it came to writing and disseminating fan fiction.

What got you interested in the topic of your book?

Because I completed my JD and PhD concurrently, I happened to be in a copyright class the same semester I read about Nicolai’s Freuden des jungen Werthers—what we might understand as a form of fan fiction. It occurred to me such works were likely common in the eighteenth century, when the German book trade grew exponentially, but had just been forgotten by history. I decided to go looking in the archives to see how contemporaries reacted to the practice since current intellectual property laws have a difficult time dealing with fan fiction.

Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?

Although I uncovered the surprisingly widespread practice of writing “fan fiction” in the eighteenth century, my focus was largely on the production, circulation, and reception of these texts. What commonalities exist between these works? Are there common rhetorical and narrative tropes or interpretations? Apart from raising questions about the poetics of “fan fiction,” Characters before Copyright concludes by speculating why this form of writing seems to have declined in the nineteenth century. More research is needed to understand if the emergence of formal intellectual property laws hindered the creation of such works or if new bibliographic and publishing practices drove consumers to prioritize the author of texts rather than the characters they featured. It is clear that law and literature are inextricably entangled in the period, but we are still figuring out exactly how.

What are you currently reading, in your field or just generally, and what do you like about it?

I am currently reading a terrific book by Javier Samper Vendrell, The Seduction of Youth: Print Culture and Homosexual Rights in the Weimar Republic (University of Toronto Press, 2020). In addition to being well written and therefore a pleasure to read, the monograph has challenged my ideas about Friedrich Radszuweit, the leader of the League for Human Rights and someone whose work during the Weimar Republic I have—one century later—long admired. Vendrell carefully contextualizes Radszuweit’s periodicals in the media, political, and cultural landscape of the time and reconstructs their reception to show how they actually undermined the publisher’s goals. Vendrell smartly connects Radszuweit’s efforts to what we would now call “respectability politics,” prompting us not just to rethink the gay rights movement in Germany but our own strategies in the ongoing fights for equality today.
2019 WCGS Book Prize seal