Elena Ferrante’s Right to a Pseudonym

The writing life has always been a risky business. Writers have dodged kings and popes, tyrants and megalomaniacs. But for female writers, the cruelest judge of all has often been society. Society has been quick to criticize ambitious women, a tendency Charlotte Brontë challenged in her work, including in her masterpiece Jane Eyre. It also ostracized those who dared to enter relationships outside marriage, as George Eliot found when she lived as the unmarried partner of George Lewes. Among the various tools in their arsenal of self-protection, writers have historically relied on the ability to write under a different name. Like Eliot, the Brontë sisters famously wrote as men, because, as Charlotte ultimately explained, “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

But this trusted tool of writers—the pseudonym—may now have become unreliable. In the era of Google and Facebook, it’s extraordinarily difficult for public figures to hide from scrutiny or, in the case of authors like the Italian novelist who publishes as Elena Ferrante, to keep their true identities a secret. Ferrante built her career around an imagined and assumed name, and her publisher assisted her in maintaining the veil of pseudonymity. But, as is now well known, she was “outed” in October by an Italian journalist, Claudio Gatti, who published his findings in four venues, in four different languages, around the world. Perhaps to his own surprise, his revelations generated a great deal of acrimony. He has been accused of everything from violating privacy to instigating a form of virtual sexual assault.

Nevertheless, for all the condemnation that Gatti has faced, he hasn’t been accused of the one crime of which he is probably guilty: violating the moral right of the author.

Moral rights are a part of copyright law. The entire discussion surrounding Ferrante, which has so captivated the media, fails to address copyright—something that is, from an author’s point of view, very important. Copyright came into being, long before Disney and Spotify, for the fundamental purpose of guaranteeing and protecting an author’s rights. In most countries—including Italy, home to both Ferrante and Gatti—copyright law protects an author’s right to be acknowledged as the creator of his or her own work. This right is known as a “moral” right, to contrast this special, non-economic prerogative of authors with the economic benefits of owning a work, which is usually acquired by a publisher, producer, entertainment company, or other corporate entity. The right to write under a pseudonym—to choose the name by which you actually want to be recognized—is widely accepted as intrinsic to the idea of “attribution.” If Ferrante were interested in taking Gatti to court for violating her moral right to write under a pseudonym, suing under Italy’s copyright law, she would probably have a good chance of success.

Curiously, the United States remains possibly the only country in the world not to recognize an author’s right to be named as the creator of his or her own work, despite huge pressure from authors’ groups and legal experts to do so. American law provides for a limited “right of attribution,” as it is called in the U.S. Copyright Act, but only in relation to works of fine art. Writers, musicians, and creators working in other disciplines have no such right at all. Establishing one would bring the United States into line with the rest of the world—a good thing when creative works literally circulate without borders, and reputations must stand or fall on the global stage.

In Italy, the copyright law says that a pseudonym will be treated as equivalent to the author’s true name, unless (and until) the author chooses to reveal his or her identity. Both the language of the law, and its silences, are arguably significant. In no way is any outsider empowered to reveal an author’s “true” identity when the author has chosen to publish under a pseudonym. Italian law wouldn’t seem to condone a concerted effort such as Gatti’s to uncover Ferrante’s identity.

Why are authors almost universally granted this strange, and strong, prerogative? The answer to this question lies at the heart of copyright history, in a perhaps surprising fact: Modern copyright law originated in the battle for freedom of speech. The first modern copyright law, the Statute of Anne, was passed in the United Kingdom in 1710, and was a crucial precursor to American copyright law. The Statute of Anne mediated the transition from a society where the sovereign could restrict speech by controlling the publication of books and other writings to one where works could be published without the approval or involvement of the state. Early copyright law accomplished this goal by a swift, simple, and surgical step: It took the right to control the publication of written works away from the sovereign, and placed it, instead, in the hands of authors. Authors could decide who would publish their works, and when, and how. Their new right would be held for a limited period, following which, anyone would have the right to re-publish any work of interest. In this way, the public domain was born.

Through these developments, authors effectively became the caretakers and champions of free speech. Early advocates of authors’ rights included eminent writers and thinkers such as John Milton and John Locke. The eventual creation of an author’s copyright was viewed as a victory for freedom of the press. In this sense, copyright was one of the first steps that modern democracies took on the path towards broader guarantees for the liberty of speech of the public.

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