Who Invented Oscar Wilde?

The Photograph at the Center of Modern American Copyright

David Newhoff

Provides a perspective for understanding the development and purpose of creators' rights in the United States.
Publication date:
March 2021
Publisher :
Potomac Books, Inc.
Format Available     Quantity Price
ISBN : 9781640121584

Dimensions : 229 X 152 mm
This book is available


• Who Invented Oscar Wilde? comprises entertaining anecdotes that will appeal to any reader interested in American history, theater, art, photography, and public policy
• The book makes a case for copyright at a time when the legal framework is hotly contested
• Central to the copyright debate is a tech-industry-funded narrative that authors' rights are incompatible with innovation and progress
• Who Invented Oscar Wilde? is an entertaining narrative, lighthearted where it can be, that offers a glimpse between the lines of history's larger events

On December 14, 1883, a short article in the New York Times featured the headline, "Did Sarony Invent Oscar Wilde?" It was a sarcastic reference to opening arguments presented the day before at the U.S. Supreme Court in Burrow-Giles Lithographic v. Sarony over the infringement of Napoleon Sarony's photograph, Oscar Wilde No. 18. The unlicensed use of the image was one made for advertising, and because Wilde's lecture tour was anticipated with a certain amount of buzz, the mood conveyed by "No. 18” seemed like an opportunity for the Erich Brothers Department Store in Manhattan to promote its collection of men's hats. The actual infringer, the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, which printed 85,000 trade cards bearing the image, argued that no photograph should ever be protected by copyright because there is no "author” who is "writing” the finished work - a reference to the intellectual property clause of the U.S. Constitution. The decision in Sarony came nineteen years after Congress added photographic works to the protected tems under the copyright act, and at a time when many people - including quite a few photographers - were not exactly sure they considered the medium to be the least bit creative.

Beginning with a lighthearted overview of copyright history, from the so-called first copyright case in sixth-century Ireland to the establishment of copyright in the new United States, David Newhoff orients the reader toward a basic understanding of pretechnological copyright law. In telling the story of Sarony's own development as an artist, Newhoff presents an underexamined biography concurrent with the development of the photographic medium itself. Sarony's personal development from lithographer to photographer represents a broader historic transition, from a time when social, political, and current events were conveyed through manual image-making to the first era when these events were depicted by machine-made images assumed to represent infallible truth. The shift in the way people perceived the world by the 1880s warrants fresh consideration in the context of the various effects of social media and the omnipresence of cameras capturing trillions of moments - from profoundly important events to mundane intimacies that might be better left undocumented.