In early 1882, before young Oscar Wilde embarked on his lecture tour across America, he posed for publicity photos taken by a famously eccentric New York photographer named Napoleon Sarony. Few would guess that one of those photographs would become the subject of the Supreme Court case that challenged copyright protection for all photography—a constitutional question that asked how a machine-made image could possibly be a work of human creativity.
Who Invented Oscar Wilde? is a story about the nature of authorship and the “convenient fiction” we call copyright. While a seemingly obscure topic, copyright has been a hotly contested issue almost since the day the internet became publicly accessible. The presumed obsolescence of authorial rights in this age of abundant access has fueled a debate that reaches far beyond the question of compensation for authors of works. Much of the literature on the subject is either highly academic, highly critical of copyright, or both.
With a light and balanced touch, Newhoff makes a case for intellectual property law, tracing the concept of authorship from copyright’s ancient beginnings to its adoption in American culture to its eventual confrontation with photography and its relevance in the digital age. Newhoff tells a little-known story that will appeal to a broad spectrum of interests while making an argument that copyright is an essential ingredient to upholding the principles on which liberal democracy is founded.
“David Newhoff is one of our clearest thinking and most knowledgeable observers of 21st Century American culture and the destructive Copyright Wars waged by the Digital Utopians.”
- T Bone Burnett, musician, songwriter, and record producer
“Most books about copyright are academic analyses or rants - or both. Not this one. David Newhoff’s Who Invented Oscar Wilde?, like his blog The Illusion of More, is full of fascinating reporting and clear analysis that adds up into a compelling and well-researched story - in this case one that shows how the current debate about copyright was shaped in part by a photo of Oscar Wilde. Really!
It’s a new way to look at an increasingly important issue, with smart takes on the debate over the future of the internet, the struggles of the creative class in the digital age, and whether a picture set up by a professional photographer but snapped by a monkey is owned by the photographer, the monkey, or no one at all. It’s amusing, important, and a great read.”
- Robert Levine, Industry Editorial Director, Billboard; author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back
“In Who Invented Oscar Wilde?, David Newhoff does more than provide a refreshing and original history of copyright. He goes to the dark heart of digital culture’s disregard for human creativity and ingenuity.”
- Andrew Orlowski, Journalist, Founder of Think of X
“Copyright law cool? Author David Newhoff eloquently makes the case for it being at least ‘cool adjacent’ in Who Invented Oscar Wilde? his entertaining, witty new book about the complex history of a law rooted in the constitution and vital to the survival of artists, our culture, and as David shows, our democracy itself.
Using an 1882 landmark lawsuit involving a photograph of Oscar Wilde as his lure, Newhoff seduces the reader past scientific, legal, and technical hurdles into a truly illuminating story that should help bring the national conversation about copyright to a place closer to sanity. This is an important book that everyone who cares about the survival of artists and the arts should read.”
- Doug Menuez, photographer, director, and author of the best-seller Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley, 1985–2000
“No one engages the intellect on copyright dialectic with the elocutionary prose of a Brahmin like David Newhoff. He is a copyright mandarin. Press pause on sophistry. My man Dave is a hell of a writer. You are going to enjoy this Wilde ride.”
- Michelle Shocked, picker-poet, singer/songwriter, artists rights activist
“What do, Mickey Mouse, Andy Warhol, Prince, Annie Leibovitz and Oscar Wilde have in common? They are all characters in the story of American copyright. Newhoff cleverly dissects the history (and challenges) of individual expression and authorship—from cave paintings to the digital age."
For me, as a photographer, never before has the definition of copyright been more meaningful and definitive. For those who create original work and want to understand the confusing concepts of copyright protection, Newhoff’s book will appeal to both legal scholars and the curious general reader”
- John Kitsch, photographer
Triptych images above: 1) Napoleon Sarony’s studio at 37 Union Square, 1894. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, lc-usz62-68733. 2) Page from brief in Burrow-Giles v. Sarony, scan courtesy of Zvi Rosen. 3) Adah Isaacs Mencken, captured by Napoleon Sarony, 866. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, lc-usz62-62681.
Copyright © 2020 David Newhoff - All Rights Reserved.