Copyright, Authorship and
African-American culture comes out of a primarily oral culture. Black American slaves, not allowed to read, continued the oral traditions of the various African cultures from which they came. 1 While I do not collapse the nuances and differences that exist within African-American culture into a neat, essentialized whole, I nevertheless maintain that prominent elements of African-American culture engage in an intertextual mode of cultural production.
I have selected two extended examples—one shorter (oral folk preaching) and the other quite long (hip-hop music)—that illustrate contradictions that occur when the intertextual practices of African-American cultural production become articulated with intellectual property law. The intertextual practices that characterize many aspects of African-American culture conflict with a particular way of understanding authorship and ownership that originated in Western Enlightenment and Romanticist thought, and these differences have resulted in significant consequences.
African-American Oral Folk Preaching
Plagiarism is inescapably intertwined with copyright (both concepts came into being around the same time) and, moreover, these concepts are bound up in the capitalist relations that began to emerge in Europe during seventeenth century. 2 During this time, there was a push to view texts as commercial products and the author as the manufacturer of those texts, a process which Scollon argues represents the “economic/ideological system which arose at the time of the Enlightenment.” 3 Scollon concludes, “The traditional view of plagiarism constitutes, in fact, an ideological