Who Owns This Sentence?: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs (Paperback)

Who Owns This Sentence?: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs By David Bellos, Alexandre Montagu Cover Image
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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

A New Yorker Best Book of 2024 So Far

A fascinating and original history of an idea that now controls and monetizes almost everything we do.

Copyright is everywhere. Your smartphone incorporates thousands of items of intellectual property. Someone owns the reproduction rights to photographs of your dining table. At this very moment, battles are raging over copyright in the output of artificial intelligence programs. Not only books but wallpaper, computer programs, pop songs, cartoon characters, snapshots, and cuddly toys are now deemed to be intellectual properties—making copyright a labyrinthine construction of laws with colorful and often baffling rationales covering almost all products of human creativity.

It wasn’t always so. Copyright has its roots in eighteenth-century London, where it was first established to limit printers’ control of books. But a handful of little-noticed changes in the late twentieth century brought about a new enclosure of the cultural commons, concentrating ownership of immaterial goods in very few hands. Copyright’s metastasis can’t be understood without knowing its backstory, a long tangle of high ideals, low greed, opportunism, and word-mangling that allowed poems and novels (and now, even ringtones and databases) to be treated as if they were no different from farms and houses. Principled arguments against copyright arose from the start and nearly abolished it in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, countless revisions have made copyright ever stronger.

Who Owns This Sentence? is an often-humorous and always-enlightening cultural, legal, and global history of the idea that intangible things can be owned, and makes a persuasive case for seeing copyright as an engine of inequality in the twenty-first century.

About the Author

David Bellos, the Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Princeton University, is an award-winning translator and biographer and the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? and The Novel of the Century. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Alexandre Montagu is a practicing lawyer and the founding partner of MontaguLaw, which focuses on intellectual property law, international commercial transactions, and new media commercial and corporate law. He lives in London.

Praise For…

Lively, opinionated, and ultra-timely.
— Louis Menand - The New Yorker

David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu’s surprisingly sprightly history Who Owns This Sentence? arrives with uncanny timing.... [B]y encouraging contemplation beyond specific pieces of what is now bleakly known as ‘content,’ the book succeeds. Let’s hope excerpts are hot out of the XeroxTM machine and being collated for college classrooms across the country.

— Alexandra Jacobs - New York Times

Thorough and engaging.... [A] welcome and timely addition to our understanding of this complex issue.
— Mahvani Sunder - Washington Post

In short, punchy chapters and witty prose, a lawyer and a literature professor untangle the history of how intellectual property has come to be protected—and who wins and loses in the bargain.
— New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

[Bellos and Montagu are] witty and learned.... [A] robust and readable polemic-history.
— Boyd Tonkin - Financial Times

As this thoughtful book shows, copyright law has been revised and rewritten according to changing needs. The authors are right that we need a ‘broad debate.’
— Dominic Green - Wall Street Journal

A surprisingly accessible recounting of the major twists and turns—and there are many!—surrounding this topic [copyright].... Well worth a read for anyone interested in history, publishing, or philosophy.
— Mariko Hewer - Washington Independent Review of Books

Fascinating.... Bellos and Montagu have extracted an enormous amount of fun out of their subject, and have sauced sardonic and playful prose with buckets full of meticulously argued bile.
— Simon Ings, The Telegraph (UK), 5-star review

A fascinating new look at the patchwork chaos called copyright.
— Anne Margaret Daniel, Spectator (UK)

The field of copyright has been full of dramatic turns, as a new book, Who Owns This Sentence?, recounts.

— The Economist

By turns painstaking and playful, Bellos and Montagu reveal the patchwork of laws, norms, and assumptions that have transformed ideas into property. Copyright is no longer just about authors and the right to benefit from their work, but about big business and even bigger profits. Theirs is a compelling call to address the privatization of the global imagination.
— Emily Drabinski, President, American Library Association

The story of copyright has many moving parts: history, literature, economics, politics, policy, and technology. Each element gets a closeup in this expertly told story of the evolution of copyright. In a time when billions of words are used to train AI models, this engaging and instructive book tells how different eras and countries have struggled with the challenge of defining ownership of texts.
— James T. Hamilton, Hearst Professor of Communication, Stanford University

Bellos and Montagu’s astonishingly capacious narrative is a gripping detective story, a flamboyant intellectual history, and a passionate manifesto for creative freedom, all rolled into one. You’ll never think about copyright in the same way again.
— Fara Dabhoiwala, historian and senior research scholar, Princeton University

We often think of copyright as a form of justice, a means of ensuring that creators rather than pirates of works receive whatever compensation is on offer. This witty, informed and timely book urgently invites us to think otherwise. Copyright, the authors tell us, ‘means more than it ever did before.’ It takes in books, films, sheet music, computer programs and many other inventions, and yet it in the end ‘it is an edifice of words.’ This detailed history makes very lively reading, and also encourages action, since we could, if we wished, use different words.
— Michael Wood, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, Princeton University

In this madcap history from Plato to Donald Duck, from feudal Europe to Facebook, David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu have written the definitive account of where copyright came from and why it looks the way it does. Who Owns This Sentence? belongs on the bookshelf of every creator, producer, policymaker, and consumer.

— Jason Mazzone, Albert E. Jenner, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Illinois

A gimlet-eyed analysis of a system that protects a corporate status quo at the expense of independent invention.
— Kirkus Reviews

Product Details
ISBN: 9781324105091
ISBN-10: 1324105097
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: February 18th, 2025
Pages: 384
Language: English