|Commentary on Milton's Contract 1667
|Deazley, R. (2008) ‘Commentary on Milton's Contract 1667', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org
|Definitive , Open Access
|Key Related Studies:
|Li, MacGarvie and Moser (2018)
|About the Data
|This study uses the original contract formed in 1667 as a case study.
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The contract between the poet John Milton and the stationer Samuel Simmons, concerning the publication of Paradise Lost, is the earliest agreement between an author and a publisher for which there exists documentary evidence. The commentary suggests that, while the terms of the contract do not necessarily reveal anything substantive about how authors in the mid-seventeenth century understood the nature of the rights they had in their manuscript work, it is nevertheless significant. Since the early eighteenth century, Milton, his work, and his contract with Simmons, were all co-opted, in a variety of ways, to service contemporary debates about the status of the author, about author- publisher relations, and about the nature of the relationship between an author and his work within the context of the emerging copyright regime.
Main Results of the Study
Main propositions of the study:
- The contract is the earliest agreement between an author and a publisher for which there exists documentary evidence, but it wasn't the first such contract ever drafted.
- Whether the contract can reliably tell us anything about how authors in the mid-seventeenth century understood the nature of the rights they had in their work is open to question.
- That the author had a property, the manuscript, which he might sell to a stationer, is certainly the case; that the existence of a contract about the same suggests anything as to whether an author considered he had a property right in anything other than the physical manuscript is less obvious.
- The contract concerning the publication of Paradise Lost provides us with a significant moment in the slow movement towards the realisation of the modern author.
- The modest figure that Milton and his widow received from Simmons, and the penurious circumstances in which his granddaughter found herself, were used as a weapon with which authors could berate the publishing industry.
- Their poverty was also co-opted in arguments concerning the author's relationship with his work, the nature of copyright, and the appropriate length of the copyright term.
- In Areopagitica, Milton advocates the importance of the connection between an author and his work as a matter of attribution, but he nevertheless tethers the published ‘copy' as a commodity to the stationer. In this manner, the real significance of Areopagitica in the history of copyright law lies in the way in which the work was misinterpreted and re-branded as an essay expounding the author's natural proprietary rights.
- The use of Milton and his work to substantiate claims about the natural proprietary rights of the author, while carrying considerable rhetorical weight, may not accurately reflect Milton's attitudes and thoughts upon the same.
- To draw upon Milton to warn against the dangers of allowing any individual to determine, on the grounds of their religious or political conviction, whether another's work should be published or not, is arguably a more fitting and appropriate use of the poet's opinions and his work.
Policy Implications as Stated By Author
Since the early eighteenth century Milton's contract with Simmons has been co-opted, in a variety of ways, to service contemporary debates about the status of the author, about author-publisher relations, and about the nature of the relationship between an author and his work within the context of the emerging copyright regime. These claims may not accurately reflect Milton's attitudes and thoughts upon the same.
Coverage of Study
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