John Milton: Architect of authors’ rights?

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In 1727, Voltaire fixed an image of the hardscrabble John Milton that would prove hard to dislodge: he wrote that the poet “remained poor and without glory; his name must be added to the list of great geniuses persecuted by fortune.”

A few days ago, I mentioned Milton’s famous — nay, notorious — contract giving him for £5 for Paradise Lost. Preeminent Miltonist Martin Evans had told me something about this contract a couple years back, and I wrote him to refresh my memory.  Almost by return email, he pointed me to a December 2010 article by his former student, Kerry MacLennan, on precisely this topic in the Milton Quarterly.  It’s online here.

Far from being a patsy, MacLennon insists that “Milton was an expert navigator in the capitalist landscape around him.”

What’s known:  the contract, signed on April 27, 1667, with printer Samuel Simmons, awarded Milton £5 on signature, and £5 on later retail sale for each of three contemplated editions of 1,300 copies each.  Hence, the real value of the transaction was £20.

Still small potatoes, right?

There’s more:  According to MacLennan, “For a writer to be paid in cash at all by a publisher was not customary at the time: seventeenth-century authors typically provided manuscripts to their printers in exchange for a small number of complimentary copies of the published work.”

This was not a royal work commissioned for an aristocratic audience.  Paradise Lost was a “risky speculative venture,” dependent upon “small press runs on speculation, displayed in bookshop windows, and awaiting discovery by readers with the interest, impulse, and either the cash or credit to buy them.”  In short, this contract marks the beginning of the decline of the aristocratic patronage system, to be replaced by a capitalistic, republican framework for writers.

MacLennon reviews Milton’s contact and determines that Milton was entitled to a share of the epic’s earnings — nearly two centuries, remember, before the advent of the term “royalty.”  She finds that while £20 might be slim pickings for the poem canonized as the most famous single poem in English, “recharacterizing the payment as a royalty of between 2.6% and 5.1% should extinguish any lingering indignation on Milton’s behalf.”

“I propose that we consider the likelihood that Milton was the architect, indeed the author, of the contract for Paradise Lost, as much as he was the creator of its poetry … Milton’s father’s professional skills as a scrivener may have directed him how to anticipate, and circumvent, contractual loopholes and trapdoors.”

She concludes:

The contract for Paradise Lost champions and models the rights of artists to manage and control the commercial aspects of their creative production. But rather than writing a pamphlet on the rights of authors, Milton’s polymath mind instead invented, and left us, a template.

(Paradise Lost images provided, of course, courtesy Gustav Doré.)


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One Response to “John Milton: Architect of authors’ rights?”

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