Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Andrew Robertson

Committee Members

David Waldstreicher

Martin Burke

David Reynolds

James N. Green

Subject Categories

Digital Humanities | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Intellectual History | Intellectual Property Law | Labor History | Legal | Legal History | Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America | Other American Studies | Other Geography | Political History | United States History


Copyright, Intellectual Property, Nation-Building, Geography, Atlantic/Imperial history, Book history


In 1985, the Supreme Court of the United States concluded that copyright was included in the Constitution in order to serve as the “engine of free expression.” By providing economic incentive to drive artistic and scientific innovation, the nation received essential information and other tools of learning necessary to make sound political decisions. However, transnational copyright disputes, then and now, frequently resulted in complex and often contradictory understandings of free expression. The formation of copyright in America was thus a far more complex story, and it is that story that forms the basis of this project.

Amidst the many moving parts and interlocking components of the eighteenth century creative economy, intellectual work was the generator and the mechanism through which art, science, and their technologies came into existence. The labors of writers and inventors, musicians and mechanics, cartographers and printers, painters and designers, initiated and drove the process of transforming abstract ideas into material expression. Yet how those efforts would be compensated and commodified, possessed and regulated was a fraught subject in in the Anglo-American world. As texts moved across local, national, and imperial borders, this tension was not limited to the book trade but rather reverberated in the construction of those boundaries themselves.

As a regulatory political mechanism and economic mode of compensation, I argue that copyright was a crucial part of the contested development of individual and national sovereignty in early America. By situating copyright in the development of two meanings of “free” expression – uncensored and uncompensated – intellectual property underscored and contributed to physical and abstract understandings of autonomy, federalism, and empire. This occurred primarily through the study, technological production, and circulation of geographic information. As geographic texts – broadly defined to include both cartographic artifacts as well as other forms of work in which geography was essential, from legal treatises to music, fabric, language, and transportation – moved across chronological, geographic, and jurisdictional borders. The ownership and circulation of geographic works was linked with the visualization of land and with the authority of the people inhabiting the sites themselves: Indigenous, settler, and citizen alike.

In this connected relationship between the ownership of texts and of the subjects they depicted, copyright was a key contribution to the contested demarcations of inclusion in the nation. Given the factual nature of geographic work, claims to authenticity were central in disputes over piracy, intellectual and physical. By focusing specifically on the dynamic between copyright and other forms of regulation, of labor and land as well as seditious libel, authorial sovereignty affected and contributed to the rise of national sovereignty in different stages of the development of United States federal authority. While international copyright protection did not emerge until the late nineteenth century, over a hundred years earlier literary property thus was a key tool in the construction of America’s position on the global map.

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