The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.2074 Monday, 27 October 2003
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Friday, 24 Oct 2003 13:13:56 -0400
Subject: All The World's A Bootleg
All The World's A Bootleg
Charles C. Mann, 10.02.00
Kurt Cobain and William Shakespeare are rarely mentioned in the same
breath, but the Bard of Avon's name forced itself into my brain when I
was downloading some Nirvana for a 12-year-old I know. It happened early
this year, when a friend came for dinner, his daughter in tow. I was
telling them about Napster -- this was before the music-sharing site
appeared on the cover of Newsweek, when a few people on the planet still
hadn't heard of it. Suddenly my friend's daughter, who had been silently
absorbed in her Discman, noticed our existence. "You mean," she said,
"you can download any song you want?"
Because I make my living from copyright, I'd been careful about Napster,
downloading only music that I already owned on compact disc. Legally,
this was probably still infringement, but I didn't think the musicians
would mind. But now I was in a social quandary.
The girl was wearing a Kurt Cobain T-shirt. Her school backpack bore a
Nirvana decal. She was listening to Nevermind, the group's second CD. No
special genius was required to predict what she would like to download
from Napster. But I don't own any Nirvana CDs, and so couldn't help her
without violating my compact with myself.
A few minutes later, she was at my computer, searching for Kurt Cobain
under my guilty instruction.
To keep the dinner party going, I eventually promised that I would burn
her a CD of Nirvana songs -- which is where William Shakespeare came in.
Several of the Nirvana songs on Napster were live recordings of
extremely poor sound quality, the vocals barely audible through audience
noise. I assumed that these were bootlegged recordings, which by
definition are hard to come by. I labeled the files "bootleg-rare." And
I added them to the CD as lagniappe.
Napster allows each member of the "Napster community" to search other
members' hard drives for particular songs. My live bootlegs attracted
enormous, even rabid interest -- they were uploaded by dozens of people,
who in turn passed them on to many others. Each time I went on Napster
and searched for Nirvana I saw them on other people's machines. Not only
did this further add to my guilt, it made me wonder what I had on my
machine. Bootlegs are always in demand, but why were these particular
bootlegs so special? Investigating, I discovered to my chagrin that
these recordings were not bootlegs at all but songs from a perfectly
ordinary live album that had been ineptly converted to digital form by
enthusiastic but technically unsophisticated Nirvana fans. I had
inadvertently reinvented them as precious bootlegs and passed them on to
Kurt Cobain aficionados hungry for any unheard notes from the master.
Not paying attention to copyright, in other words, had led me to act
like a little engine of misinformation, spraying inaccurately labeled
bits around the Internet. Which recalled to mind the many early editions
of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare's works are known entirely from badly printed quartos and
folios, none of which were authorized by the playwright, and no two of
which are identical. Romeo and Juliet, to cite one example, appeared in
three disparate quarto editions -- all anonymous, each different from
its fellows -- before first appearing under Shakespeare's name in the
First Folio of 1623. The First Folio's editors complained that the
earlier editions of Shakespeare were nothing but "stolen, and
surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealths of
[the] injurious imposters, that exposed them" to the public. But the
Folio editors published their edition seven years after the playwright's
death, and there is no evidence that they had previously consulted him.
Indeed, according to Steven Urkowitz of the City College of New York,
these editors -- or someone else -- rewrote 400 lines of King Lear,
altering character, theme, and plot.
Many of the other plays fared no better. As a result, there is no master
copy of Shakespeare's work that can be compared with variants. The
original, if it exists, has been swamped by mislabeled, badly produced
junk copies. Shakespeare may be the En Allglish language's most
celebrated dramatist, but nobody knows what he actually wrote.
Shakespeare was no anomaly. During the 16th and 17th centuries,
according to Adrian Johns' The Nature of the Book (1998), new printing
technologies appeared in Britain as the government-sponsored publishers'
cartel was slowly losing its control over the book industry. It became
vastly easier and cheaper to produce and distribute books -- and there
were no effective controls or regulation of the industry. (Copyright was
invented a century later.) A period of bibliogonic chaos ensued. Anyone
could -- and did -- print almost anything. When popular new texts
appeared, they were instantly pirated by other printers and
pamphleteers. Publishers felt no compunction about respecting the text,
so the new, unauthorized versions were reedited (why not try a happy
ending on Lear, which might then sell better?), misattributed (why not
say it was written by the local aristocrat, who might then buy out the
edition?), and dotted with errors (why pay for proofreading, when nobody
else is doing it?). The result, Johns argues, "was an explosion of
uncertainty." No one knew which, if any, text represented an author's
intent; readers couldn't be certain if their copies of the Principia
Mathematica truly presented Newton's laws. "Knowledge," Johns writes,
"appeared and disappeared daily, with alarming transience."
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