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Authorship & Ownership: Towards a Prehistory of Intellectual Property in Ancient Greece


Legal scholarship’s frequent recourse to the Sybaritic culinary patent (according to Phylarchus’ account in Athenaeus) as the oldest example of monopoly privilege for the practice of an invention suggests consideration of ancient authorship under the rubric of intellectual property (IP). Beginning from a review of the principles of IP law and its modern jurisprudence as already fruitfully applied to Roman culture, discussion is here extended to ancient Greek materials, especially archaic literature. With proper caution against teleological pitfalls, modern IP doctrine is construed not as a monolithic whole, but a diffuse array of independent principles, reflecting the operation of universal principles of human creative expression, its variants identifiable at any stage of human history. Proceeding chronologically, Homer, the prototypical author, more artificial attractor of attribution than orthonymic individual in his own right, is construed as a primordial instance of IP, attribution representing a necessary prerequisite to plagiaristic misappropriation or pseudepigraphic forgery. Hesiod, like Archilochus, taken as a further evolutionary step, is evaluated as prototypical Greek authorial ego, personality through authorial self-assertion. Theognis’ sphragis (whether or not original to its nominal author) is treated as a natural progression along these lines, an overt reference to the Hesiodic signature, but also anticipating techniques of secure literary fixation more fully developed in acrostic and similar technopaegnic forms. Whereas the rigors of stoichedon epigraphic style deserve consideration in this context, its resistance to malicious distortion is here denied. In contrast to these formal methods, Heraclitus’ alleged temple-dedication of his book is examined as an attempt at publicity as well as physically secure archiving, with parallels most fully developed as a later literary topos of pseudepigraphic authentication. Appreciation of the contributions of early cataloging, indexing, and excerpting to articulation and value of literary works as properties, consideration is given to the Sybaritic culinary patent as the fictional construct of a literary genre which treated Sybaris as the epitome of hybristic luxury, the fable of its doom styled as the inevitable result of moral failings exceeding all mechanisms of sumptuary restraint.

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