Wilde’s “Personal Impressions of America”

Noting all the verbatim plagiarism that goes on in Picture of Dorian Gray and Portrait of W.H. it would be a really easy leap to extrapolate that Wilde must not have had a more communal conception of literary property.  I mean, not only did this guy take paragraphs from unknowns and incorporate them into his pretty successful (if poorly reviewed by scholars at the time) works, but he also is the guy who said, “I appropriate what is already mine, for once a thing is published it becomes public property.”

And: “Of course I plagiarize. It is the privilege of the appreciative man.”

And: “Talent borrows, genius steals.”

So, taking all that into account, you’d think he’d be pretty free about having others use his work in any way they’d wish.

Not so.

In “Personal Impressions of America” Wilde talks about getting rather offended at some pirated, unauthorized copies of his work being sold in the US:

“I found but poor consolation for this journey in the fact that the boys who infest the cars and sell everything that one can eat–or should not eat–were selling editions of my poems vilely printed on a kind of grey blotting paper, for the low price of ten cents.  Calling these boys on one side I told them that though poets like to be popular they desire to be paid, and selling editions of my poems without giving me a profit is dealing a blow at literature which must have a disastrous effect on poetical aspirations.  The invariable reply that they made was that they themselves made a profit out of the transaction and that was all they cared about” (939).

So, if Wilde were around today, how do you think he’d feel about Napster, and maybe even SOPA?

Though plagiarism (obfuscated attribution) is not the same act as piracy (unauthorized distribution), I can’t help but think a bit of Wilde’s reflection here is hypocritical.  Piracy and plagiarism have in common possible monetary consequences for the original authors in either cases.  For the victim of plagiarism, the stolen work has the potential to be a market competitor, stealing customers who would have otherwise purchased the original author’s work.  The best example for this might be competing movie scripts, such as was the case in The Terminator.  James Cameron’s actions in creating The Terminator based on a Harlan Ellison story robbed Ellison of the future chance to make his own movie version of his story, even if he wasn’t thinking about it at the time.  Or, at least in theory decreased the chance that Ellison’s own version would be successful, since audiences presumably wouldn’t want to see two versions of the same story (though this is an interesting idea that may not stand up to testing…wasn’t The Hulk remade twice in very short succession, the second time being far more successful than the first?).

Anyway, for the victim of piracy, the argument is very similar: unauthorized publication means less revenue.  This idea has also been challenged, particularly with music copies and the theory that more illegal publication means more fame means more eventual sales.

I wonder if this formula has worked for Wilde as well…Wilde, Dickens, Stoker, and other authors were frequently the target of unauthorized publication, sometimes with minor changes or rewrites, to be published in cheap Penny Dreadfuls, but today all of us know that Stoker is the original author of Dracula, and Dickens is responsible for Oliver Twist. Piracy didn’t rob them of the credit to their works, and perhaps resulted in a much larger readership.  Did piracy actually contribute to their long-term fame?  Perhaps, but perhaps it also robbed them of potential cash and easier lives while they were around.

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