Thursday, September 9, 2010

Literary Curses (of the Tomb Raider Kind)

Bible Chains, Book Curses & Copyright

By Lloyd J. Jassin

In the Middle Ages books were scarce.  It was more likely that one would be stolen than copied.  Consequently, copyright notices just didn't cut it.  To combat the theft of books, the church used an early form of digital rights management called chains.  And, on the advice of counsel, scribes affixed curses to books.  In Biblioclasm, author (and professional medieval illuminator) Marc Drogan, identifies the following as the most famous literary curse.   
 "And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book."  --  Revelations, 22:19
The church didn't have a monopoly on literary curses.  Each of the 304,805 letters of a Torah scroll must be precisely written and kept intact, as it is believed that every letter has divine meaning.  In keeping with this prohibition, medieval Jewish scribes issued stern warnings stating you cannot add or take away from the Hebrew bible. In short, no unauthorized derivative works allowed. The following Torah scroll inscription, or colophon, is similar to the prohibition against gratuitous editing clauses I negotiate for "A" list clients -- except in publishing contracts, the parties consent to personal jurisdiction and venue in the state and federal courts in New York.           
"Whoever alters a word of this mahzor or this writing or erases one letter or tears off a leaf . . .  may he have neither pardon nor forgiveness; neither let him behold the beauty of the Lord.  He shall be like a woman in impurity and like a leprous man, who has to be locked up so that his limbs may be crushed, the pride of his power broken, his flesh consumed away that it cannot be seen, and his bones that were covered made bear." --  A warning at the end of the Moshe Ben-Asher Codex, C 984, the oldest medieval Hebrew bible. 
Medieval colophons, the precursor to today's copyright notices, appeared as concluding statements at the back of manuscripts.  The colophon would indicate the work's title, the copyist (not the author), date and place of copying, and contain either a blessing or a curse.  According to the Encyclopedia of the Book by Geoffrey Ashall Galister (Oak Knoll/British Library), by the early 16th Century, the practice of placing a colophon at the end of a book was largely abandoned.   Instead of the scribe's name appearing at the back of the book, the printer's name (and its royal license to sell the work) appeared on the title page.  Over time, colophons morphed into copyright notices, and sanctions for unauthorized copying was transferred from God's exclusive jurisdiction, to the crown's jurisdiction.    
According to Drogin, the oldest known book curse appears on cuneiform tablets found in the biblical city of Ninevah.  Like today's authors, Babylonian King Assurabini-pay wasn't just concerned with protecting against theft, but receiving credit for his work.  Similar to warnings found on today's sound recordings ("WARNING: All Rights Reserved.  Unauthorized Duplication is a Violation of Applicable Law"), King Assurbani-pal imprinted this form of notice on his royal records:

"Whosoever shall carry off this tablet or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land."
The following isn't a curse.   However, like the curses above, it reveals how our ancestors thought about books.  Specifically, it refers to the perishability of the written word.  To me it sounds like a Twelfth Century rabbinic endorsement of the vaguely religious sounding Kindle eBook reader.
"One must be careful not to put his books in the same receptacle with food for fear of the mice nibbling them both.".  --  Rabbi Judah Ben Samuel Leon Chassid, Sefer Chassidon (Book of the Pious), Germany, 1190.
The 21st Century take away?  If you fear rodents, and value books, buy an e-Book reader.  But, if what you really fear are natural (and man-made) disasters, perhaps the best investment is a bound book.  Torah scrolls have held up pretty well over the centuries. Papyrus had a good 4,000 year run.  Notwithstanding the sack of Rome in 410 and the Viking raids of the Middle Ages, parchment still speaks to us today.  Recently, a parchment psalter wrapped in ancient Egyptian papyrus was found in an Irish bog.  I am, however, unaware of any antediluvian or Atlantean e-Books that has survived the great flood. 

Without physical book production, will an e-Book author's fame be limited to his own generation?  Has our fixation with Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and Google analytics made us oblivious to the issue of preservation?  When an author settles for fame, as opposed to an advance, is anything lost?  What about the faithful reproduction or authenticity of the text?  I have no horse in this race.  But, print-values differ from digital values.  Manuscripts are static.  Authoritative (except when they aren't).  Digital works can be mashed up, recast, and repurposed.   Copyright law is harmonious with literary production when you define it as the assembly line manufacture of books.  When there are no physical copies what is the role of copyright law? 

Whereas popes, monarchs, printers and publishers once stood between the printing presses and the people, each of us can now decide what and when to publish.  Is general interest trade publishing inopposite with the  digital present?  Publishers select, preserve and feed the supply chain. What happens when the supply chain is cut? 

As intellectual property takes to the cloubs, what fragments of the book-trade will remain?  What fragments of the book-trade should remain?    How will the law handle the regulation of the details of the book business?  Marshall McLuhan said it best.  "What will be the new configurations of mechanisms and of literacy as the these older forms of perception and judgment are interpreted by the new electric age?" 

My colophon or concluding statement, contains both a blessing and a curse.  May you be included in the revised and updated edition of The Book of Life (Google Editions).  However, if you infringe this work, may you be seized by the neck like a bird, your head cranked off, and your carcass hung up to drain*.  Go ahead, I dare you.

*adapted from a curse on the tomb of the courtier Biw at Sakkara, circa 2260 B.C.


Biblioclasm:  The Mythical Origin, Magic Powers & Perishability of the Written Word (Rowman & Littlefield) by Marc Drogan.