Technologies of Writing
Jaishree K. Odin
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Just as we are at the threshold of a new electronic revolution that is redefining all aspects of our lives, it is worthwhile to look back and understand how another revolution--the printing revolution--brought about long lasting and deep changes in western social and cultural landscape. That change, as we look back, might have had a similar life-transforming effect on the people who lived in centuries shortly following the invention of printing press. In any analyses of the manifold impact of the printing revolution, it is important to look at it as part of a varied phenomena occurring in the European socio-political landscape which unleashed a complex set of changes, both small and large. These changes mutually affected one another which led to great leaps in scientific progress while at the same time resulting in political, social and economic changes.

Printing Revolution and its Impact on Social and Cultural Formations

Printing revolution ushered in the era of modern Europe by making both ancient and medieval texts available to a broader audience which produced a fertile ground for new ideas and new theories. Marshall McLuhan rightly notes that the shift from predominantly oral culture to print culture also affected the nature of human consciousness in that print represented an abstraction of thought which gave precedence to linearity, sequentiality and homogeneity. This mode of thinking is very much evident not only in rationalist philosophy, realistic fiction, but also in the rise of scientific materialism in the following centuries. Printing also led to the standardization of various European languages as works began to be published in these languages. Eventually this standardization of vernacular languages contributed toward promoting literatures which were used to create national mythologies. Whereas maps were in circulation since ancient times, cartography as a science is the child of print revolution. And cartography was not only important in demarcating national boundaries, but also mapping the territories that were colonized in the new world.

In order to understand the deep changes that were the result of printing revolution, we need to focus our attention at the transition from the scribal to the print culture which brought the book culture from inside the monasteries to outside into the universities. This outwards movement got lay people involved in reading and writing activities. During the Middle Ages, the book production in the manuscript form was confined to monasteries and other ecclesiastical centers which had thus direct control of the resulting book culture. The scribal culture of the Middle Ages depended on the meticulous copying of manuscripts by scribes who spent hours at their task in scriptoria. Such a labor intensive task could not lead to large scale duplication and hence, access to manuscripts was confined to chiefly the clerics who became custodians of the book culture. In the feudal social structure, therefore, the scholarly activities were confined to monasteries and reading was usually the occupation of clerics.

The modes of communication transform modes of production as well as modes of consumption. In the preprint era, when only a small percentage of the population had access to written sources of information or knowledge, both public and private affairs were primarily conducted through oral communication. The primacy of physical presence in communication promoted community formations that were very much dependent on geographical togetherness and within that constraint further determined by communities based on parochial and family bonds. Printing revolution changed all that--for the first time, it was possible for political, economic, and culture producers to reach people who were dispersed geographically. As a result new types of communities were formed that were based on personal or professional interests, or political affiliations.

Even though printing involved a different mode of production, early printers used conventions of the scribal culture as they produced books. Printing was seen initially as a more efficient way of mass copying of manuscripts rather than as a totally new medium which would transform the way people read, wrote, as well as handled texts. Just as manuscript copyists showed preoccupation with surface appearance making sure that the copy was as close to the original, so did the early printers aim at producing printed books which looked very similar to manuscripts in surface appearance. Soon however, printers started seeing the advantages inherent in the print medium that allowed more things than possible through hand copying. Mechanical reproduction led to freeing of time that could be devoted to the other aspects of text production. This included appearance, meaning, as well as ease of reading which led to editing conventions very different from those used in manuscript production. Since a small mistake could be reproduced in thousands of copies, so a great deal of attention was given to proof reading and editing. Even the readers got involved by sending in the errors they detected which were corrected by issuing errata pages in the already printed editions and using corrected future editions. We now stand at another divide--between the print and the electronic culture-and we see a similar conflation of two very different modes of production. Print practices and standards are used to evaluate or produce texts in a totally different medium. Only slowly are we beginning to realize that inherent ephemerality, and transmutability of the electronic text changes the text's relationship to both the reader as well as the writer.

Elizabeth Eisenstein argues that printing brought about a revolutionary change in the ways in which knowledge was preserved, used and passed on to the succeeding generations. Unlike the print era, copying in the scribal era was a laborious process and it was almost impossible to get exactly similar copies of the original manuscripts. Thus, a number of variant manuscripts would be in circulation. Due to limited number of copies, each manuscript was unique and had to be guarded in public places, usually chained to bookshelves, or stowed away in vaults and other safe places, so it was not lost or destroyed. The distinction that we make now between the original and the copy came into existence with the rise of the print culture. Printing made it possible for the mass production of identical copies which could be distributed widely amongst people separated geographically as well as historically. As printing made ancient as well as medieval texts available, it also allowed opportunities to future scholars, literary men, or scientists to be able to study, compare, and synthesize this knowledge and come up with their own theories. Describing "typographical fixity"as necessary for "rapid advancement of learning," Eisenstein notes that what chiefly distinguished the print era from the preprint was the accumulation of knowledge made possible through the preservative powers of print. In the preprint era due to the scarcity of manuscripts it was not possible for the general public to have recourse to the accumulated knowledge of the past. Thus, even before the close of the sixteenth century, the areas of charting the planets, mapping the earth, synchronizing chronologies, codifying laws or compiling bibliographies underwent a major change in that the old knowledge was retrieved and given typographical fixity which made it available for broader study and perusal, soon to be replaced by new schemes and charts which were continually corrected and refined by the following generations. The error free compilation and distribution of technical literature, for example, astronomical or geographical data, maps, charts and so on, freed the technical personnel to engage in observation and data collection. Eisenstein finally concludes, that printing by making simultaneous viewing of identical data by people geographically separated "constituted a kind of communication revolution in itself."

In their exhaustive study The Coming of Book , Febvre and Martin note that the book trade through mass copying of manuscripts turned books into commodities of exchange which could be sold for profit. Gutenberg's invention of printing press, as scholars point out, perhaps was one of the successful experiments by people in that era to find mechanical means of reproduction so that increasing demand for books could be met expeditiously. Printing has indeed been described as the first assembly line industry where a team of typographers produced a finished product that could be copied for mass distribution.

As the book trade became more lucrative and the reading public increased in number, publishers invested in printing books that would appeal to a broader audience. Initially, religious and devotional literature constituted a higher percentage of literature that was printed, but this changed by the eighteenth century when new forms of literature slowly established themselves. The society based on print culture relied on individual acts of writing as well as reading which promoted notions of individuality, originality, and creativity which was reflected in new literary forms. The romantic movement in Germany and England further promoted the idea of the inspired writer who produces a totally unique and original work which is different from other works. It was in the late eighteenth and beginning of nineteenth century that authors actively campaigned for intellectual right or copyright to their own work.

Printing and Authorship

In the earlier scribal and partially oral cultures, the concept of authorship was very different and did not have the same meaning that it has nowadays. In the East, for example, authors of preprint era attributed their work either to their teachers or they described them as a revelation. In the commentaries of the ancient texts, too, the focus is on the tradition rather than on the authors who wrote these works. The origin of these ancient traditions is usually associated with nebulous historical or mythical figures. When one studies any corpus of such texts along with the commentaries, one tends to think more in terms of collective authorship instead of an individual author. Thus, the idea or the knowledge transmitted was more important than the individuals who contributed to the tradition. In Europe, too, the function of author as it appeared in preprint culture was not attached to the idea of ownership. Writing was an act to materialize knowledge of universal nature in tangible material form. It was thus not a product or a commodity to be sold for monetary profit. Writing became a commodity with an exchange value with the invention of the printing press which made it possible to have mass multiplication of the same manuscript. As printed text made its way into the hands of a broad audience, its content as well as form was slowly transformed. The laws of the market promoted publication of lighter literature which had broader appeal. Thus, came into existence new literary forms which were more geared toward recreation and entertainment.

Martha Woodmansee shows how the notion of "author", was very different in the renaissance and neoclassical period. The writer then was seen as a craftsman who learned his tools to manipulate traditional materials to produce works to satisfy his patrons who provided for his livelihood and social status. If the piece was unique, it was seen as the result of an act of inspiration that came from the outside or from the above. Even as late as 1750, the author was regarded in Germany as one of the participants in the process of book production along with other craftsmen that included the papermaker, the typefounder, the typesetters and the printer. The two notions describing writing as a craft and as an act of inspiration existed side by side until the middle of the eighteenth century when a slow shift occurred. Critics and writers increasingly tended to see their work as arising from an act of inspiration from within rather than from the above and this notion was given precedence over that of the writer as a craftsman. This shift, Woodmanse argues, was directly linked to changed patterns of production, distribution and consumption of reading materials. Not only did new literary forms, for example, the novel, book review, and periodical make their appearance, but also the distribution of printed materials was facilitated through the setting up of circulating libraries. As serious writers competed against hack writers who produced popular literature, they began to see an urgent need to create narratives that would emphasize the uniqueness of their work. Increasingly, with the rise in romantic modes of thought first in Germany, then in England, the notion of the genius who, in an act of inspiration, produced a work that was original gained popularity. Thus, a creative piece of work was associated with a particular author and it was seen as something totally different from what was produced before. This thinking, Woodmanse concludes, shaped the intellectual property or copyright laws in Europe.

Initially, as the book writing industry started, authors did not get paid for their creation, instead they acquired patrons to whom they dedicated their works and who in return provided them with financial rewards. As the middle class reading public increased in number, book trade became a profitable business and the profession of author slowly established itself. The authors could no longer rely on the patronage of a few wealthy individuals who in the earlier times had contributed toward their livelihood and social status. In order to assure their livelihood based on the popularity of their works, they had to satisfy the needs of the general reading public who bought the work. A new kind of literature, characterized as lighter literature, more for entertainment than dealing with serious ideas, made its appearance. Printing not only made possible mass multiplication of the manuscript, it also created a fixed personality for the author in that a particular narrative came to be associated with the creator of a particular set of works which were seen as containing a certain line of thinking which distinguished it from other works. Printing thus gave rise to a different concept of authorship--particular works came to be associated with particular authors who made their living based on the popularity of the works they produced. The notion of the uniqueness of the writer and his creation could be exploited both by the publisher and the writer, because it could be used to justify the ownership of intellectual property.

Evolution of Copyright

The legal and commercial aspects of copyright evolved in Europe over almost two centuries which ended up in the institution of a system of royalty whereby the writer enters into a contractual agreement with the publishers regarding his share of profits on the sale of printed copies of the manuscript. The royalty system is based on the assumption that the writer owns the product of his intellectual labor which appears in the form of "work" over which he has common-law right before it is published and copyright after it is published. Looking at copyright laws now, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when the author did not have any control over his manuscript after he sold it to the publisher. It was customary towards the end of the sixteenth century for the publisher to buy the manuscript from the author for a lump sum. After the manuscript was bought, the publisher had total control over it and any profits made on the sale of printed books and any future reprints. Writing was not a means of livelihood for writers in this era. In keeping with the feudal modes of behavior which emphasized dependence and reciprocal codes of duty and service, the authors at this time sought cultivated patrons in the court to whom they dedicated their works and who in return compensated them in financial terms.

While elaborating on the evolution of copyright laws in Germany, Elizabeth Woodenmanse notes that the right of privilege was issued initially as a favor by the court to protect the publishers from unauthorized reprints. As the book business expanded in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century and greater number of people got involved in the printing business, the limited right of privilege proved to be an inadequate protection since it was only applicable within the borders of the territory or state. Since Germany was comprised of about three hundred states and each state issued its own privilege rights, it created a situation where unauthorized reprints seen as an infringement of privileged rights in one state was seen as a source of revenue in another. The privilege continued in Germany into the eighteenth century which was the only means of protection the publishers had against unauthorized reprints. It was toward the end of the eighteenth century that various copyright acts went into effect in Germany (43).

While in Germany the copyright evolved out of the right of privilege, in England it began in 1557 when the Crown chartered the Stationers's Company which consisted of an association of printers who had right to print. Other printers who did not belong to the Stationers's Company had to get special permission to print. As the reading public expanded, book publishing became a profitable business. Soon unauthorized reprints of books made their appearance in the market. Although book piracy was around since the beginning of publishing history, it became a problem for the publishers when it targeted the popular book market. The unauthorized reprints of popular books which were sold at lower prices affected the legitimate printers who had invested in the production of these books. In order to combat book piracy which was cutting into their profits a part of which were used by legitimate printers to cover the investment in printing books of more specialized nature, publishers appealed for protection to own the rights to copy. The sixteenth century British Licensing Act instituted that each manuscript published had to be officially licensed. The licensing took the form of making an entry of the manuscript title into the Stationers's Company register which gave the publisher the right to copy. Whoever made the entry of a particular manuscript first owned the right to copy that manuscript. As Benjamin Caplan points out, though this looks like the present day copyright arrangement, this was not really so because it did not specify that the work was supposed to be an original contribution, instead it included both ancient and new works. Also, this arrangement was more to protect the publishers from unauthorized reprints rather than the author. Also, the officers of the Company acted as the royal censorship agency which had absolute control over what was printed. Since members of the Stationers's Company were a group of London based publishers loyal to the crown, soon they obtained rights to copy all the manuscripts that were worth printing. The Licensing Act lapsed in 1694 and the publishers in order to maintain their copyright protection petitioned to the parliament which resulted in the Statute of Anne in 1710. However, instead of giving the publisher perpetual copyright, it was the first legal copyright act which gave the author a limited copyright of fourteen years that could be extended by another term of fourteen years if the author survived the first term. The author had to register the work in the Stationers's register in order to ensure his copyright and each time the work was reprinted the printer had to pay the author. For works that were already in print, a limited copyright of twenty one years was given to the publisher. Mark Rose notes that the parliaments' decision to introduce the author's right into the Act was to break the monopoly of London booksellers who owned most of the copyrights of value. The author's rights were used by booksellers to promote their own interest. By proposing that the author had common law right in the manuscript turned the manuscript into property which when it was to break the monopoly of a few London booksellers that had total control over manuscripts that were of value that the limited copyright was instituted.

Due to changing political and economic conditions, the official licensing through the Stationers' Company gradually lost its effectiveness. As the book industry expanded, the authors increasingly demanded right to their works but the legal, political, and economic institutions were not ready to recognize this right. Once the publishers bought the manuscript from the author, they had total control on printing and reprinting it and the profits made from it. and both the publishers and the authors saw the necessity for resolving copyright issues legally which made it possible for the author to have exclusive rights over the manuscripts for a definite period of time, after which it went to public domain. In 1710 the Statute of Anne came into existence which was the first legal arrangement to bestow the right to copy to the author for a period of fourteen years after the first date of publication. If the author was still living after the initial term, a second term of fourteen years was granted to him to own the copy. In order to ensure the ownership of the copy the author had to register his work in the Stationer's register. Each time the work was reprinted the publisher had to seek the permission of the author and pay him for the reprint. Soon the author began to ask for high sums for their manuscript which the booksellers resented because it was hard to tell which manuscript would be a success. Throughout the eighteenth century both in England and Europe the authors continued their struggle to own the rights over their work

The writers had incentive to keep themselves engaged in the lonely task of writing because usually not only their subsistence was dependent on it, but also their personal fame. Printed book assured the writer's immortality. Notions of authorship, individuality, as well as creativity have been challenged in recent years by theorists. Michael Foucault shows how the notion of "author" as it appears in recent history of literature, philosophy and sciences, is a construction that was shaped by legal, economic, and social institutions.

©1997 Jaishree K. Odin