Who Invented Oscar Wilde?


Who Invented Oscar Wilde?

The Photograph at the Center of Modern American Copyright

David Newhoff

320 pages
15 photographs, 8 illustrations, index


November 2020


$32.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

November 2020


$32.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

November 2020


$32.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

AAP PROSE Award, Finalist in Media and Culture Studies 2021

In early 1882, before young Oscar Wilde embarked on his lecture tour across America, he posed for publicity photos taken by a famously eccentric New York photographer named Napoleon Sarony. Few would guess that one of those photographs would become the subject of the Supreme Court case that challenged copyright protection for all photography—a constitutional question that asked how a machine-made image could possibly be a work of human creativity.

Who Invented Oscar Wilde? is a story about the nature of authorship and the “convenient fiction” we call copyright. While a seemingly obscure topic, copyright has been a hotly contested issue almost since the day the internet became publicly accessible. The presumed obsolescence of authorial rights in this age of abundant access has fueled a debate that reaches far beyond the question of compensation for authors of works. Much of the literature on the subject is either highly academic, highly critical of copyright, or both.

With a light and balanced touch, David Newhoff makes a case for intellectual property law, tracing the concept of authorship from copyright’s ancient beginnings to its adoption in American culture to its eventual confrontation with photography and its relevance in the digital age. Newhoff tells a little-known story that will appeal to a broad spectrum of interests while making an argument that copyright is an essential ingredient to upholding the principles on which liberal democracy is founded.

Author Bio

David Newhoff is a freelance writer and communications consultant. As a copyright advocate he has worked with Copyright Alliance in Washington, DC; CreativeFuture in Los Angeles; and the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason School of Law. He founded the blog The Illusion of More and several of his essays have been cited in scholarly journals such as the Harvard Law Review, shared widely by legal experts and artists, and republished in Berklee Today, Allegro, and in both educational textbooks and online curricula.


“Most books about copyright are academic analyses or rants—or both. Not this one. David Newhoff’s Who Invented Oscar Wilde? is full of fascinating reporting and clear analysis that adds up to a compelling and well-researched story. It’s amusing, important, and a great read.”—Robert Levine, author of Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

“David Newhoff is one of our clearest-thinking and most knowledgeable observers of twenty-first-century American culture and the destructive copyright wars waged by digital utopians.”—T Bone Burnett, musician, songwriter, and record producer

“Copyright law, cool? David Newhoff eloquently makes the case for it being at least ‘cool adjacent’ in Who Invented Oscar Wilde?, his entertaining, witty new book about the complex history of a law rooted in the constitution and vital to the survival of artists, our culture, and, as he shows, our democracy itself. This is an important book that everyone who cares about the survival of artists and the arts should read.”—Doug Menuez, photographer, director, and author of the best-seller Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley, 1985–2000

“No one engages the intellect on copyright dialectic with the elocutionary prose of a Brahmin-like David Newhoff. He is a copyright mandarin. Press pause on sophistry. You are going to enjoy this Wilde ride.”—Michelle Shocked, picker-poet, singer-songwriter, and artists’ rights activist

“David Newhoff does more than provide a refreshing and original history of copyright. He goes to the dark heart of digital culture’s disregard for human creativity and ingenuity.”—Andrew Orlowski, journalist and founder of the research network Think of X

“David Newhoff is one of the sharpest and most nuanced thinkers about the role of artists’ rights in the digital age.”—East Bay Ray, guitarist, songwriter, and co-founder of the Dead Kennedys

“What do Mickey Mouse, Andy Warhol, Prince, Annie Leibovitz, and Oscar Wilde have in common? They are all characters in the story of American copyright. David Newhoff cleverly dissects the history (and challenges) of individual expression and authorship—from the time of cave paintings to the digital age. For those who create original work and want to understand the confusing concepts of copyright protection, Newhoff’s book will appeal.”—John Kitsch, photographer

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: Eidolons
1. Dangerous Paradoxes
2. Copyright in a Few Snapshots
3. Stone Drawing
4. The Mencken
5. The Aesthetic Sham
6. The “Death of Chatterton” Case
7. The Girl (Boy) on the Tracks
8. “The Apparatus Can’t Mistake” 
9. Who Invented Oscar Wilde? 
10. The Wit of Macaulay v. Mickey Mouse
11. Monkeys and Selfies and “Monkey Selfies”
12. Art Is Theft
13. Invasive Species: When Machines Make Art
14. Who’s Inventing the Future? 
Epilogue: Mirrors of Memory


AAP PROSE Award, Finalist in Media and Culture Studies 2021

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