Characters before Copyright (Oxford University Press 2019) 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. Long before Star Trek fans wrote spinoff stories for mimeographed zines and Harry Potter enthusiasts posted sequels online, readers in eighteenth-century Germany wrote what we today recognize as fan fiction. And they did it before intellectual properties laws existed.
This book analyzes the social, economic, and aesthetic changes that led to an explosion of fan fiction after 1750 and it reconstructs the contemporaneous debate about the much-disputed literary phenomenon. Many of the arguments made today about fan fiction were already made 250 years ago. But eighteenth-century German writers had to solve their disputes without copyright. This book uncovers the unwritten, extralegal customary norms they relied on instead.
Characters before Copyright thus reinterprets the “literary commons” of the eighteenth century as a regulated space. What may appear as the free circulation of characters was actually circumscribed by a complex and exacting set of rules and conditions. These rules translate into a unique type of literature that necessitated remarkable forms of collaborative authorship and originality distinct from those associated with the Romantic author. Ultimately, Characters before Copyright provides a new perspective on the eighteenth-century book trade and the rise of intellectual property, proposing a reevaluation of the concept of literary property, the history of moral rights, and the tradition of free culture.