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Pirating Fictions

Ownership and Creativity in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture
Monica F. Cohen

BUY Cloth · 312 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813940694 · $45.00 · Jan 2018
BUY Ebook · 312 pp. · ISBN 9780813940700 · $45.00 · Jan 2018

Two distinctly different meanings of piracy are ingeniously intertwined in Monica Cohen's lively new book, which shows how popular depictions of the pirate held sway on the page and the stage even as their creators were preoccupied with the ravages of literary appropriation. The golden age of piracy captured the nineteenth-century imagination, animating such best-selling novels as  Treasure Island and inspiring theatrical hits from  The Pirates of Penzance to  Peter Pan. But the prevalence of unauthorized reprinting and dramatic adaptation meant that authors lost immense profits from the most lucrative markets. Infuriated, novelists and playwrights denounced such literary piracy in essays, speeches, and testimonies. Their fiction, however, tells a different story.

Using landmarks in copyright history as a backdrop,  Pirating Fictions argues that popular nineteenth-century pirate fiction mischievously resists the creation of intellectual property in copyright legislation and law. Drawing on classic pirate stories by such writers as Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, and J. M. Barrie, this wide-ranging account demonstrates, in raucous tales and telling asides, how literary appropriation was celebrated at the very moment when the forces of possessive individualism began to enshrine the language of personal ownership in Anglo-American views of creative work.


Engagingly written and sprightly in its moves between texts and ideas, Pirating Fictions is attractive, fresh, and fun.

Clare Pettitt, King's College London, author of Patent Inventions: Intellectual Property and the Victorian Novel

Written in a lively and engaging style,  Pirating Fictions examines the interplay between literary theft and nautical piracy, outlining a compelling case for a dialogue between the two and their roles in the move towards international copyright agreements.... Cohen’s rich and intelligent study draws out links between Scottish authorship, piracy and copyright questions. Her work sheds new light on such late Victorian favourites as  Treasure Island and  Peter Pan by emphasizing a collaborative, communal authorship of the pirate tale, one which satisfied public expectations for piratical behaviour and appearance by referencing – or raiding – previous works.

Times Literary Supplement

In Pirating Fictions: Ownership and Creativity in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture, Monica F. Cohen explores the ambiguities of intellectual property and authorial control through the figure of the pirate... After providing historical background with a discussion of Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton, Cohen considers works by Byron, Scott, and James Fenimore Cooper, underscoring the stagey quality of their pirates and their provenance in the illegitimate theaters. Moving then to Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, she shows that even when writers set out to use the figure of the pirate to condemn textual piracy the gambit tended to fail because the pirate’s stage history made him a sympathetic figureof collaborative creativity.

SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

Cohen links maritime piracy to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practices of unauthorized reprinting and adaptation... [and] impressed me with her ingenuity, entertaining delivery, breadth of knowledge, and unexpectedly captivating interpolations.... [T]he book outlines the symbiotic relationship between copyright law and theater culture that evolved throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and, as Cohen’s conclusion suggests, 'anticipates twenty-first-century concerns about the free online circulation of intellectual products.’

Studies in the Novel

About the Author(s): 

Monica F. Cohen, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, is the author of  Professional Domesticity in the Victorian Novel: Women, Work and Home.

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