“This Plagariasm Was Falsely Sold”: Lies, Libels, and Copies in the Late 18th Century

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:20 AM
Delaware Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Nora Slonimsky, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York and McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania
“False pretense of improvements,” “a view to deceive the reader,”: statements questioning the veracity of content, all statements questioning the legitimacy of authorial ownership. Written by a web of geographers, politicians, and printers in the late eighteenth century, Lewis Evans, Thomas Pownall, and Jedidiah Morse, geographers who emphasized factual accuracy, each attacked the unauthorized use of their cartographic work, drawing on a classic argument that literary piracy resulted in inaccurate, illegitimate, and manipulative content. Frequently, they asserted, the piracy of their texts was tantamount to a libel, a slander against their authorial reputation that resulted in fake information.

In this contested space of eighteenth century communications, claims of authenticity mirrored and reinforced claims of authority on individual and national levels. Geographers, printers, lawyers, and politicians – all actors in the broader project of constructing national sovereignty in the Early American Republic —understood that whoever successfully established intellectual jurisdiction in turn possessed a key tool in the establishment of physical and legal jurisdictions as well. Because of the nationalist messages embedded in geographic works, Evans, Pownall, and Morse each perceived their copyright disputes as an attack on factual, and an in turn, an attack on the legitimacy of their country.

 This paper explores how two separate charges of piracy – one in 1776 and the other in 1796 – relied on a principle that factual accuracy was essential both to individual and national reputation. Paralleling and intersecting with developing jurisprudence on seditious libel, that a charge against a person or a government could not be libelous if it was true, I argue that copyright went beyond its role as commercial compensation. Literary property claims functioned as a tool in establishing factual accuracy that in turn provided necessary information for the functioning of the developing federal government.

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