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Who Owns This Sentence?

On sale

18th January 2024

Price: £14.99

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Selected: Paperback / ISBN-13: 9781800699144

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Copyright is everywhere. Your smartphone incorporates thousands of items of intellectual property. Someone owns the reproduction rights to photographs of your dining table. At this very moment, battles are raging over copyright in the output of artificial intelligence programs. Not only books but wallpaper, computer programs and cuddly toys are now deemed to be intellectual properties – making copyright a labyrinthine construction of laws, covering almost all products of human creativity.

Copyright has its roots in eighteenth-century London, where it was first established to limit printers’ control of books. Principled arguments against copyright arose from the start and nearly abolished it in the nineteenth century. But a handful of little-noticed changes in the late twentieth century concentrated ownership of immaterial goods into very few hands.

Who Owns This Sentence? is an often-humorous and always-enlightening cultural, legal, and global history of the idea that intangible things can be owned, and makes a persuasive case for seeing copyright as an engine of inequality in the twenty-first century.


Kirkus Reviews
A gimlet-eyed analysis of a system that protects a corporate status quo at the expense of independent invention
Fara Dabhoiwala, historian and senior research scholar, Princeton University
A gripping detective story, a flamboyant intellectual history, and a passionate manifesto for creative freedom ... You'll never think about copyright in the same way again
One good life option is to just read everything David Bellos has ever written
Emily Drabinski, President, American Library Association
Bellos and Montagu reveal the patchwork of laws, norms, and assumptions that have transformed ideas into property. Copyright is no longer just about authors and the right to benefit from their work, but about big business and even bigger profits. Theirs is a compelling call to address the privatization of the global imagination
Jason Mazzone, Albert E. Jenner, Jr. Professor of Law, University of Illinois
In this madcap history from Plato to Donald Duck, from feudal Europe to Facebook, David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu have written the definitive account of where copyright came from and why it looks the way it does. Who Owns This Sentence? belongs on the bookshelf of every creator, producer, policymaker, and consumer
Michael Wood, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus, Princeton University
We often think of copyright as a form of justice, a means of ensuring that creators rather than pirates of works receive whatever compensation is on offer. This witty, informed and timely book urgently invites us to think otherwise. Copyright, the authors tell us, 'means more than it ever did before.' It takes in books, films, sheet music, computer programs and many other inventions, and yet it in the end 'it is an edifice of words.' This detailed history makes very lively reading, and also encourages action, since we could, if we wished, use different words
James T. Hamilton, Hearst Professor of Communication, Stanford University
The story of copyright has many moving parts: history, literature, economics, politics, policy, and technology. Each element gets a closeup in this expertly told story of the evolution of copyright. In a time when billions of words are used to train AI models, this engaging and instructive book tells how different eras and countries have struggled with the challenge of defining ownership of texts
Stephanie Anderson, LibraryReads Board Member
Copyright is often defended as an immutable concept handed down through the generations, but this brisk and entertaining history outlines the truth of its complicated history, and illuminates the ways in which it has increasingly been weaponized by contemporary corporations. A gem of narrative nonfiction with wide appeal, bound to be especially savored by anyone with a stake in the future of intellectual property
Simon Ings, The Telegraph
Fascinating ... Bellos and Montagu have extracted an enormous amount of fun out of their subject, and have sauced their sardonic and playful prose with buckets full of meticulously argued bile
Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times
From the British Statute of Anne in 1710, which granted meagre rights to authors but more to publishers, to those looming AI battles on IP's "haziest frontier", the book maps the ever expanding empire of copyright ... [a] robust and readable polemic history
Louis Menand, New Yorker
Lively, opinionated, and ultra-timely
The field of copyright has been full of dramatic turns ... Mr Bellos and Mr Montagu argue that copyright has gone from a right that favours creators to something more akin to a privilege for the rich and powerful.
Alexandra Jacobs, New York Times
David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu's surprisingly sprightly history "Who Owns This Sentence?" arrives with uncanny timing ... The authors' chapters are short but their reach, like the arm of the law itself, is long.
Anne Margaret Daniel, Spectator
A fascinating new look at the patchwork chaos called copyright ... Not just authors, but artists in many media, scientists, mathematicians and every one of us with our own unique individual faces .... should read this book
Dominic Green, Wall Street Journal
David Bellos and Alexandre Montagu explain how copyright became an invisible economic architecture that governs not just vital matters such as royalties, but also ephemera such as commercial trademarks and medical patents ... As this thoughtful book shows, copyright law has been revised and rewritten according to changing needs
Mariko Hewer, Washington Independent Review of Books
An astute survey of ever-evolving proprietorship laws ... a surprisingly accessible recounting of the major twists and turns - and there are many! - surrounding this topic
Madhavi Sunder, Washington Post
A thorough and engaging history of copying and plagiarism, from Virgil to Taylor Swift ... This encyclopaedic yet refreshingly breezy book takes readers across time - from ancient honour codes policing plagiarism to the first modern copyright statutes, World Trade Organization rules and developments in copyright in China. The result is a compelling history of human creation