Over the past few months, I've been reading other people's writing and research on Asher Benjamin. One such scholar, architectural historian Abbot Lowell Cummings, has reviewed all the earlier pattern books (mainly English) that Benjamin copied. Yes, just copied - plate after plate. It turns out that Benjamin made direct copies from what can be found in earlier pattern books, most of them published in England. And at the time, no one seems to have said, "Hey! This is plagiarism!"
I find this interesting in light of conversations I've had about my own work and ownership of intellectual property. When I, an architect who works on old houses, design a new wing, I pay a huge amount of attention to how the existing house was designed. I am mining the existing house for visual knowledge that will help my wing compliment what's there. Sometimes I just plain copy.
But who owns the design that I copied? The original building may not have had an architect, so could it be the property of the carpenter, or the owner? Does it belong to me, because I adapted it? And should anyone even own it at all?
I'm pretty sure Asher Benjamin wasn't deliberately stealing the intellectual property of his predecessors - I doubt people even thought in those terms 200 years ago. I do think he really liked the designs he put in his first books, and he wanted to share what he saw. His own writing - like his paragraphs about light and shadow on mouldings - are so genuine and earnest, that I can imagine Benjamin choosing the plates for his book with the same passion.
So I'm glad no one slapped a lawsuit on him!
The whole concept of intellectual property was fundamentally different in the early nineteenth century and before from what it is today. In the sixteenth century, for example, musicians not only co-opted and reworked other composers' work, the musician who could add another voice to a polyphonic composition was considered more skilled than the original composer. Similar attitudes were evident in all the arts down through the eighteenth century (consider English editions of Palladio's books, for instance). In that climate, plagiarism (as we know it) simply did not exist.
Thanks, Allen, for your comparisons which I could not have made.
Thinking about the issue since I wrote the post, I came to agree with you. I was thinking about pattern books where copying was expected, hoped for.
When I wrote the post my son and I were talking about who owns the 'intellectual property' in the IT field. Since artists and architects have always looked, seen, and used what they understood, it is hard to think about being accused of stealing when one incorporates what one sees through one's work.
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