WCGS Book Prize Winner for 2019 - Matthew Birkhold

Seal for 2019 WCGS Book Prize Award

The Waterloo Centre for German Studies is pleased to announce the winner of its prize for the best first book published in 2019. Characters before Copyright: The Rise and Regulation of Fan Fiction in Eighteenth-Century Germany, written by Matthew H. Birkhold and published by Oxford University Press, was selected from a shortlist of seven excellent academic monographs. The prize includes a cash award of CAD $3,000.

It may come as a surprise to us, but fan fiction was a phenomenon in 18th-century Germany, and Birkhold explores the emergence and rapid proliferation of the practice of literary borrowing after 1750. In doing so, he sheds light on several interwoven issues: the nature of publishing and the German book market in the later eighteenth century, the extent and practices of reading and the development of a reading public, and the conventions which developed to define the intellectual property rights of authors, which ultimately led to the formulation of formal legal codes. The legal and copyright issues surrounding fan fiction in our own day were also apparent in the 18th century, but with one singular difference: the idea of copyright was in its infancy, and authors had to find other means to pursue their grievances.

Birkhold’s intriguing investigation of 18th-century German book and literary culture earned the admiration of the award jury. The originality of Birkhold’s “new approach to forgotten, neglected, overlooked material . . . . recovers a thriving literary culture and sees it has doing something really important: debating and creating new norms around what constitutes ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ use.” The jurors thought this “superb” and “brilliant” book also deserved recognition for its ability to make “connections to today’s copyright questions such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.”  

Headshot of WCGS Book Prize winner Matthew Birkhold
Matthew H. Birkhold is Associate Professor of German at Ohio State University where he is also Affiliated Faculty in the Moritz College of Law. His teaching and research focus on law, culture, and the humanities. He earned his BA and JD from Columbia University and his PhD from Princeton University. Prior to joining Ohio State he worked as an attorney-adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. Department of State. In addition to publications in leading academic journals, Professor Birkhold has published in venues such as The AtlanticThe Paris ReviewThe Washington Post, and The New York Times.  

The Waterloo Centre for German Studies takes great pride in sponsoring an award that celebrates the dynamic and engaging scholarship occurring in all fields of German Studies. The prize is adjudicated by a jury of German studies scholars chaired by James M. Skidmore, Director of the Waterloo Centre of German Studies. Members of the jury were Ann Marie Rasmussen (University of Waterloo), Joachim Whaley (University of Cambridge), and Stephan Jaeger (University of Manitoba). Over 20 books published in 2019 were nominated. In addition to Birkhold’s book, six of the nominated books were named to a shortlist that illustrates the quality and range of German studies today: 

  • Kata Gellen. Kafka and Noise: The Discovery of Cinematic Sound in Literary Modernism. Northwestern University Press. 
  • Seth HowesMoving Images on the Margins: Experimental Film in Late Socialist East Germany. Camden House. 
  • Richard N. Lutjens, Jr. Submerged on the Surface: The Not-So-Hidden Jews of Nazi Berlin, 1941–1945. Berghahn Books. 
  • Philipp Nielsen. Between Heimat and Hatred: Jews and the Right in Germany, 1871–1935. Oxford University Press. 
  • Zef M. SegalThe Political Fragmentation of Germany: Formation of German States by Infrastructures, Maps, and Movement, 1815–1866. Palgrave. 
  • Tyler WhitneyEardrums: Literary Modernism as Sonic Warfare. Northwestern University Press. 

Nominations are now open for the WCGS Prize for books published in 2020. Please refer to the eligibility guidelines and nomination procedures for the prize. Nominations must be received by March 31, 2021. Questions and comments may be directed to wcgs@uwaterloo.ca.