Copyright, Critical Editions, and Ancient Texts

I don’t really like Copyright. No, let me rephrase it. I think copyright is often immoral, is rarely in authors’ interests, and is primarily used to protect vested interests, not creators’ rights or interests. There are multifaceted and complex reasons for this, which I do not intend to make the main aim of my post today.

Instead I want to talk about ancient texts and copyright. Here I think the moral issue is much, much clearer. Wherever you fall on contemporary copyrights, it simply cannot be disputed that it is of no value to Socrates, Cicero, or the mysterious author of Hebrews, to assert ‘copyright’ over their works. They are gone, done and dusted, and their works rightly belong in the public domain.

(Translations are another separate issue, I’ll leave them aside.)

It’s critical editions that are the sticking point. If I read 5 manuscripts and then decide which variants to include in an edition, the current default hypothesis is that I have somehow acquired a copyright over this work. This is the practice of various monopolising bodies, whom you know well, and the overpriced and underutilised editions of ancient works they release. This is, in my view, a fairly insidious example of ‘enclosing’ the public domain. Of taking what belongs to all, and putting a fence around it and re-privatising it.

I also suspect that if put to the test, it might well fail in court. Because while there is certainly work in assembling a critical edition, and more than that, there is skilled and detailed work, there is no creative work. Nothing is added to the work, nothing remixed, nothing generated. There is no new work done. Under many countries’ copyright regimes this does not pass the standard tests for acquiring a copyright to a work. It’s about on the same level as organising word lists or printing phone books. Sheer volume of labour does not copyright make.

There is another devious way that the monopolies lock things up. Not under copyright, but under ‘terms of service’. Those malicious legalesque babellings that no-one reads because to do so would literally consume our lives in minutiae that no one genuinely has time for. Many of these could be found non-binding as well, especially those that require no ‘active’ assent beyond, say, using a website. Passive assent generally does not stand up well under legal scrutiny either.

Unfortunately the reality of our copyright tyrannies is such that few can afford to challenge such monopolies. So, like many other things in academia, closed shops and inaccessibility continues unabated. And, to be fair, I will not be the one to challenge this any time soon. I, also, have too much to lose.


Perhaps, though, there might be another way? I think there is. And that is simply to get as many public domain editions accessible as possible. To skirt and subvert these attempts to lock up ancient texts. There is, as well, the movement away from critical editions, to single manuscript editions, in some areas. These, definitively, cannot be locked up under copyright.

We live in the age of copying. The whole internet is one giant copying machine that excels at one purpose: duplication. Let’s duplicate texts so that there are so many that no one ever needs to say, “Gee, if only I could enter that locked enclosure and read that highly priced text”. Let’s make knowledge free.