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The Society of Authors Meets Hollywood: Why authors and playwrights lost out

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In the early 20th century there was a fundamental shift in the industrial significance of authorship. Individual and family firms gave way to multi-national enterprises, contractual terms became standardised and the negotiating power of the individual was substantially diminished. This talk looks at how the Society of Authors (UK) facilitated the rise of industrial authorship.

Throughout the 19th century many popular stories found in books were staged as plays and vice versa. Writers were often actively involved in developing new audiences and avenues to profit. However, reforms enacted in the Copyright Act 1911 (UK) that sought to clarify adaptation rights to books and plays essentially allowed publishers to control the future of adaptation rights. In 1914 the Society of Authors established a Cinematic Sub-Committee to work with Hollywood to prevent competing film versions of the same story coming out in the same geographical markets.

Their collaboration with Hollywood contributed to US domination of international film markets and a restriction of the commercial opportunities for playwrights. The natural rights of the author were denatured, diluted and copyright’s ideologically celebrated characteristic property — primarily rewarding creative, as opposed to commercial endeavour — was fundamentally disrupted.

This talk draws upon Chapter 5 from Copyright, Creativity, Big Media and Cultural Value: Incorporating the Author, (Routledge, 2021).


Dr Professor Kathy Bowrey is a legal and cultural historian interested in how commodification of creativity and knowledge operates on a global scale. She is a Co-Director of the International Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property (ISHTIP).

This lecture is supported by the Nesta Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC)

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