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Kant: On the Unlawfulness of Reprinting (1785)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: d_1785


Commentary on Kant's essay "On the Injustice of Reprinting Books" (1785)

Friedemann Kawohl

Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management, Bournemouth University, UK


Please cite as:
Kawohl, F. (2008) ‘Commentary on Kant's essay On the Injustice of Reprinting Books (1785)', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,

1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. The late reception of John Locke's labour theory of property in Germany

4. The notion of the "book as a speech" as advanced by Kant and other authors of the Enlightenment and German Idealism

5. Kant's concept of reprinting as "agency without authority" and its failure in copyright discourse

6. Reprints of Kant's works and the concise version of the 1785 article in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797)

7. References


1. Full title
Immanuel Kant: "On the Injustice of Reprinting Books", as published in Berlinische Monatszeitschrift 5 (1785)


2. Abstract
In his article on the "Injustice of Reprinting Books" the famous philosopher adopted an unusual position. Like many other popular authors of his time

Kant had to face unlicensed reprints of his works and was therefore personally interested in opposing this practice. However, unlike most of his contemporaries from the anti-reprinting faction, Kant denies the concept of "intellectual property" and the idea that any intellectual content is materialised in the book as such. In Kant's view the book is a medium, a mere tool for conveying the author's thoughts, and thus an unlicensed reprint does not encroach on any property as such of the author or publisher. Rather, it is unlawful because it amounts to an "agency without authority".

This commentary will focus on the late reception of Locke's property theory in Germany, on German Enlightenment notions of the book as a ‘speech', on the negligible impact of Kant's essay on German copyright theory, and it will also suggest a possible new relevance of Kant's ideas in the context of modern internet communication.


3. The late reception of John Locke's labour theory of property in Germany
Early twenty-first-century scholars of intellectual property will find in Kant's article an interesting non-Lockean approach to the regulation of information. Kant's position is exceptional because it asserts the "injustice of reprinting", but not as an infringement of intellectual property. The only form of property acknowledged by Kant in the literary sphere is an author's property (or ownership) in his thoughts. This kind of intellectual property, however, cannot be impaired by reprints:

"For the author's ownership to his thoughts (assuming in the first place that such ownership applies according to external rights) remains his in spite of any reprinting" (403)

Unlike later German Idealist philosophers, such as Fichte (d_1793) and Hegel (d_1821), Kant did not follow a Lockean property approach and was thus able to draft a model for a non-proprietary control of communication.


It was John Locke's theory, as outlined in his Two treatises of Government (1690), that established for the first time the idea of labour as the fundamental source of private property and, more generally, the notion that private property is a primary natural right of every person. Older concepts had always postulated a general community of goods in the state of nature. Locke's theory was first adopted in England, and, from around the mid-eighteenth-century, also in Scotland and France, whereas in Germany earlier concepts of property, shaped by such jurists as Samuel Pufendorf and Hugo Grotius, remained predominant. Only very few German authors adopted Locke's theories of government before the last decades of the eighteenth century.[1] Thus, Locke's theory of the justification of property on the basis of personal labour entered German legal discourse at a point when natural law concepts had generally become suspect. As Manfred Brocker puts it: "The idea of justifying basic principles of law independent of modes of conduct and interests, without reference to power and sheer will, had all of a sudden become obsolete."[2] Locke's theory could thus never become central to German juristic thought, since, after being adopted comparatively late, towards the end of the eighteenth century, natural law discourse as such was in decline. Furthermore, modern legal philosophy, which to a certain extent can be regarded as the successor of natural law as a basic discipline of law, was from Kant onwards already going beyond the Lockean horizon. German legal philosophers from the generations who came after Kant accepted in principle the idea that property is acquired by labour, but this notion soon had superimposed on it the new Kantian concepts of personality rights and the category of will.


4. The notion of the "book as a speech" as advanced by Kant and other authors of the Enlightenment and German Idealism
Kant avoids being drawn into the property discourse by treating books as actions or acts rather than as goods, as, for example, when he states: "in a book as a written work the author is speaking to his reader" (406), and even more precisely in a footnote:

"A book is the instrument for delivering a speech to the public - not just thoughts, as paintings for example do, or the symbolical representation of some idea or event. From this follows the essential point that it is not a thing which is thereby delivered, but an act [opera], namely a speech, and, what is more, literally. By calling it a mute instrument I distinguish it from those means there are for communicating a speech through sound - like a speaking-trumpet, for example, or even the mouths of other persons." (407)

His core assumption here is that there is no essential difference between delivering a speech orally and communicating with the public by means of a book. It was this assumption that made Kant's theory so unpopular for the following generations. But on the other hand, it is exactly this assumption which might be able to play a significant role in contemporary disputes on non-proprietary concepts of regulating the exchange of information.


Kant's view of a book as a mere "instrument for delivering a speech" was based on his renouncement of Locke's property concept, as well as of such contemporary notions about publishers' intellectual property as those advanced by Reimarus (d_1773a) or Pütter (d_1774). Kantian philosophy was rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of a reading and writing public. He and his German contemporaries did not really think of authorship as a distinct profession. Many of them had worked as private tutors before they managed to secure academic posts, and the idea of making a living as a professional writer was not so familiar to them. The prevailing eighteenth-century view of books as ‘speeches' was clearly expressed by Adolph Freiherr von Knigge (1752-1796):

"Writing is therefore a public communication of one's thoughts, a printed conversation, a speech addressed to everyone in the public who is willing to hear. It means conversing with readers."[3]

Knigge's assertion in 1792 of the equivalence of oral discourse and book-writing, however, can be interpreted as a sign that this supposed equivalence was already falling apart at that time. Moreover, Knigge, who was born into an aristocratic, albeit impoverished, family and received a nobleman's education, never thought of writing as an honourable profession. His younger contemporaries, however, Schiller (one of the very first German professional authors) and Fichte, who both came from modest backgrounds and were thus much more aware of the economic opportunities afforded by writing, clearly made a distinction between writing and speaking. For Schiller, a writer's distance to his readers is to some extent seen as a deficit when in 1795 he reflected on the

"most peculiar fact that the writer is, as it were, invisible and influences his reader from afar; that he is deprived of the advantage of impressing the latter's mind through the vividness of the spoken word and the support of accompanying gestures; that it is only ever through abstract signs, that is, through the intellect, that he may appeal to our feelings; but that for this very reason he has the advantage of allowing his reader a greater inner freedom than is possible in an animated conversation"[4]

Fichte, who had political ambitions and was seeking as broad an influence as possible - especially with his Addresses to the German Nation, delivered in 1807/08 as a series of lectures in Berlin during the French occupation and published as a book in 1808 - stressed the freedom enjoyed by, but at the same time the challenges facing, the writer as opposed to an orator:

"Just as the writer is free of the obligation of the lecturer to adapt himself to the receptivity of others, so he is not entitled to invoke the latter's excuse. It is not a sedate listener whom he has before his eyes - rather, he constructs an ideal reader for himself and determines what this reader should be like. Certainly, there are publications which are fashioned with a specific epoch and a specific audience in mind [...] but these do not belong to the true literary works with which we are concerned here"[5]

Kant's concept thus proved to be that of an eighteenth-century elite writer - that is, a member of either the nobility or a class of professors or other learned state officials who regarded money as a base motive for writing.


For the generation of Schiller and Fichte, however, writing was fast establishing itself on a professional basis (like many other economic developments, this process occurred in Germany somewhat later than in England and France), and authors since then have seen financial rewards as a perfectly legitimate and respectable motive for writing. As a result, they readily postulated an economically valuable property right in their works and not just a Kantian "authorial ownership of one's thoughts" which, according to the philosopher, could never be impaired as such by unlicensed reprints.


5. Kant's concept of reprinting as "agency without authority" and its failure in copyright discourse
Kant was not a trained lawyer, but he was interested in, and well acquainted with, legal disputes. He was certainly aware of the controversy surrounding the concept of ‘intellectual property' (‘geistiges Eigentum') which was advanced by German publishers rather than authors in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries before the specific modern German concept of author's rights (‘Urheberrechte') was developed.[6] From the second half of the nineteenth century onwards the term ‘intellectual property', in fact, ceased to be used altogether in German legal discourse. A reason for this was to stress the essential difference between author's rights (which encompassed both natural law claims and a strong moral rights aspect) and patent law which came to be regarded as the remit of trade policy and legislation.[7]


In its heyday, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the concept of ‘intellectual property' was invoked by publishers to support the legitimacy of their claims to receive protection against unlicensed reprints. Once Lockean ideas had been assimilated into Germany, it became possible to buttress every form of ‘intellectual property' by references to the natural law dignity of property in general. Nevertheless, in the German context, where the dogmatic interpretation of Roman legal traditions was still so predominant, the concept of ‘intellectual property' was always compromised by the inconsistency between, on the one hand, the Roman law view of property as a temporarily and functionally unlimited right (in principle) and, on the other hand, the time-limited nature of rights to ‘intellectual property'. Furthermore, ‘intellectual property' claims seemed to be at variance with the property right acquired by the buyer of a book, since in the strict definition of Roman law property is an absolute right which can only exceptionally be diminished by any claims. Notions of property as a ‘bundle of specific rights', such as had been developed in the English feudal tradition, were on the whole suspect to German lawyers.


Kant provides a solution to this dilemma of ‘intellectual property' versus the strict definitions of Roman law by avoiding, in his essay, this whole dispute on property rights. He resorts to a completely different juridical concept: it is not the author's property that is violated by a reprint, but the author's right to decide whom he will delegate to transfer his speech to the public. Unauthorised reprinting is, therefore, not a property offence but, rather, an "agency without authority". Kant explains that he regards:

"publishing not as the trading with goods in one's own name but as the conduct of business in the name of another person - namely, the author" - and that in this way I can easily and clearly demonstrate the unlawfulness of reprinting."

Kant's waiver of the strong moral value of the property concept reveals his general disdain for property as a basic human right. Kant's younger contemporaries and intellectual successors, however (see Fichte d_1793, Hegel d_1821), were not willing to forgo the opportunity of confirming their claims to stronger author's rights by invoking the high moral nimbus associated with personal property.


And this is precisely the reason why Kant's theory was adopted by only very few jurists. The Prussian statute book of 1794 did not grant any author's rights, but rather a publisher's right. In the early nineteenth century, it was only Neustetel (d_1824) who tried to develop Kant's theory further, but his work had nearly no bearing at all on German nineteenth-century copyright disputes and legislation.


Kant was sometimes quoted on the grounds of his unique position as a philosopher, but the attitude of German jurists towards Kant's theory from the mid-nineteenth century onwards is perfectly encapsulated in Kohler's observation, made in 1907, about how Kant's


"bizarre idea that with each copy of a book the author is somehow speaking to the people, so that what the reprinter is doing is to let him speak to mankind without due permission, did not arise from juristic foundations, but was, rather, the fantastic concoction of a wholly unjuristic mind"[8]


6. Reprints of Kant's works and the concise version of the 1785 article in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797)
Kant's works were often been reprinted during his lifetime. The original editions of his works were published in Riga, Königsberg and Berlin, his most important publisher, Johann Friedrich Hartknoch Sr (1740-1789), being based in the first of these cities which, as the capital of the Governorate of Livonia, was then part of the Russian Empire. His son, Johann Friedrich Hartknoch Jr (1769-1819) transferred the firm to Leipzig in 1804 after serious problems with the Russian government. The other authorized publishers of Kant were Friedrich Nicolovius (1768-1836)[9] and Gottlieb Lebrecht Hartung in Königsberg; and Francois Theodore de Lagarde (1756-c.1800) and Christian Friedrich Stahlbaum (1752-1788) in Berlin.


Many of the other early publications listed by Arthur Warda[10] were, in fact, unlicensed reprints: e.g. anonymous editions indicating Frankfurt and Leipzig as the places of publication, and the notorious reprinters Ludwig Christian Kehr in Kreuznach (1800) (see d_1799), Christian Gottlieb Schmieder in Karlsruhe (1783-) (see d_1806, d_1774b), and Johann Georg Fleischhauer in Reutlingen, who even invoked an Imperial privilege in 1783.[11]


Kant thus had a certain personal stake in the reprinting dispute, but it seems that this question was not at the centre of his interests. When he sent his article on 31 December 1784 to the editor of the Berlinische Monatsschrift he admitted that "in the exposition of his arguments he always had to resist a certain tendency to verboseness"[12] and that, since he was always "brooding on a number of ideas at the same time", he was not short of supply of topics to write on, but, rather, of selection criteria. Unimpressed by the position of, say, Fichte (d_1793) and other contributions to the reprinting debate during the following twelve years, Kant had obviously not changed his ideas on the matter when in 1797 he published the Metaphysics of Morals in 1797, which provided a concise statement of his 1785 ideas reads as follows:


II. What is a Book?

A book is a writing which contains a discourse addressed by some one to the public, through visible signs of speech. It is a matter of indifference to the present considerations whether it is written by a pen or imprinted by types, and on few or many pages. He who speaks to the public in his own name is the author. He who addresses the writing to the public in the name of the author is the publisher. When a publisher does this with the permission or authority of the author, the act is in accordance with right, and he is the rightful publisher; but if this is done without such permission or authority, the act is contrary to right, and the publisher is a counterfeiter or unlawful publisher. The whole of a set of copies of the original document is called an edition.


The Unauthorized Publishing of Books is Contrary to the Principles of Right, and is Rightly Prohibited

A writing is not an immediate direct presentation of a conception, as is the case, for instance, with an engraving that exhibits a portrait, or a bust or cast by a sculptor. It is a discourse addressed in a particular form to the public; and the author may be said to speak publicly by means of his publisher. The publisher, again, speaks by the aid of the printer as his workman (operarius), yet not in his own name, for otherwise he would be the author, but in the name of the author; and he is only entitled to do so by virtue of a mandate given him to that effect by the author. Now the unauthorized printer and publisher speaks by an assumed authority in his publication; in the name indeed of the author, but without a mandate to that effect (gerit se mandatarium absque mandato). Consequently such an unauthorized publication is a wrong committed upon the authorized and only lawful publisher, as it amounts to a pilfering of the profits which the latter was entitled and able to draw from the use of his proper right (furtum usus). Unauthorized printing and publication of books is, therefore, forbidden- as an act of counterfeit and piracy- on the ground of right.


There seems, however, to be an impression that there is a sort of common right to print and publish books; but the slightest reflection must convince any one that this would be a great injustice. The reason of it is found simply in the fact that a book, regarded from one point of view, is an external product of mechanical art (opus mechanicum), that can be imitated by any one who may be in rightful possession of a copy; and it is therefore his by a real right.


But, from another point of view, a book is not merely an external thing, but is a discourse of the publisher to the public, and he is only entitled to do this publicly under the mandate of the author (praestatio operae); and this constitutes a personal right. The error underlying the impression referred to, therefore, arises from an interchange and confusion of these two kinds of right in relation to books.[13]



7. References

Books and articles [in alphabetical order]


Bosse, Heinrich. Autorschaft ist Werkherrschaft: Über die Entstehung des Urheberrechts aus dem Geist der Goethezeit (Paderborn: Schönigh, 1981)

Brocker, Manfred. Arbeit und Eigentum. Der Paradigmenwechsel in der neuzeitlichen Eigentumstheorie (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992)

Gieseke, Ludwig. Vom Privileg zum Urheberrecht: Die Entwicklung des Urheberrechts in Deutschland bis 1845 (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1995)

Kapp, Friedrich. Geschichte des Deutschen Buchhandels bis in das siebzehnte Jahrhundert (Leipzig: Verlag des Börsenvereins der Deutschen Buchhändler 1886)

Klenner, Hermann. Commentary in his edition of Kant Rechtslehre: Schriften zur Rechtsphilosophie (East Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1988)

Klippel, Diethelm. "Persönlichkeit und Freiheit: Das ‘Recht der Persönlichkeit' in der Entwicklung der Freiheitsrechte im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert", in Grund- und Freiheitsrechte von der ständischen zur spätbürgerlichen Gesellschaft ed. by Günter Birtsch (Göttingen, 1987)

Klippel, Diethelm. "Die Idee des geistigen Eigentums in Naturrecht und Rechtsphilosophie des 19. Jahrhunderts", in Historische Studien zum Urheberrecht in Europa ed. by Elmar Wadle (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1993)

Kohler, Josef. Urheberrecht an Schriftwerken und Verlagsrecht (Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke, 1907)

Löhnig, Martin. "Der Schutz des geistigen Eigentums von Autoren im Preußischen Landrecht" in Zeitschrift für Neuere Rechtsgeschichte 29 (2007): 197-214

Stark, Werner. Nachforschungen zu Briefen und Handschriften Immanuel Kants (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag 1993)

Warda, Arthur. Die Druckschriften Immanuel Kants bis zum Jahre 1838 (Wiesbaden: Heinrich Staadt, 1919). Available online at: <>

Wittmann, Reinhard. Geschichte des Deutschen Buchhandels: Ein Überblick (Munich: Beck, 1991)

[1] Diethelm Klippel, "Persönlichkeit und Freiheit, Das ‘Recht der Persönlichkeit' in der Entwicklung der Freiheitsrechte im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert", in Grund- und Freiheitsrechte von der ständischen zur spätbürgerlichen Gesellschaft ed. by Günter Birtsch (Göttingen, 1987), 269-290 (283).

[2] "Die Vorstellung, die Grundprinzipien des Rechts unabhängig von den [...] Verhaltensweisen und Interessen, jenseits von Macht und bloßem Willen, begründen zu können [...] erschien mit einem Male obsolet." - Manfred Brocker, Arbeit und Eigentum: Der Paradigmenwechsel in der neuzeitlichen Eigentumstheorie (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1992), 300.

[3] "Schriftstellerey ist also öffentliche Mittheilung der Gedanken; gedruckte Unterhaltung; laute Rede, an Jeden im Publico gerichtet, der sie hören will; Gespräch mit der Lesewelt", quoted in Heinrich Bosse, Autorschaft ist Werkherrschaft: Über die Entstehung des Urheberrechts aus dem Geist der Goethezeit (Paderborn: Schönigh, 1981), 17.

[4] "den ganz eigenen Umstand, daß der Schriftsteller gleichsam unsichtbar und aus der Ferne auf einen Leser wirkt, daß ihm der Vorteil abgeht, mit dem lebendigen Ausdruck der Rede und dem Accompagnement der Gesten auf das Gemüt zu wirken, daß er sich immer nur durch abstrakte Zeichen, also durch den Verstand an das Gefühl wendet, daß er aber den Vorteil hat, seinem Leser eben deswegen eine größere Gemütsfreiheit zu lassen, als im lebendigen Umgang möglich ist" Friedrich Schiller quoted in Bosse, 23. Translation by Luis A. Sundkvist.

[5] "So wie er [der Schriftsteller] frei ist von der Verpflichtung des mündlichen Lehrers, sich der Empfänglichkeit anderer zu fügen, so hat er auch nicht dessen Entschuldigung vor sich. Er hat keinen gesetzten Leser im Auge, sondern er konstruiert einen Leser, und giebt ihm das Gesetz, wie er seyn müsse. Es mag Gedrucktes geben, das ein bestimmtes Zeitalter und ein bestimmtes Publicum im Auge behält; [...] doch sind dies nicht die eigentlichen schriftstellerischen Werke, von denen wir hier sprechen", Fichte quoted in Bosse, 24. Translation by Luis A. Sundkvist.

[6] Diethelm Klippel, "Die Idee des geistigen Eigentums in Naturrecht und Rechtsphilosophie des 19. Jahrhunderts", in Historische Studien zum Urheberrecht in Europa ed. by Elmar Wadle (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1993), 121.

[7] See the commentary on Klostermann, d_1872b.

[8] "verwunderliche Vorstellung, als ob der Verfasser mit jedem Buchexemplar an das Volk spreche, so daß ihn der Nachdrucker unerlaubt an die Menschheit sprechen lasse, ist keinem juristischen Boden entsprungen, sondern die abenteuerliche Ausgeburt eines unjuristischen Geistes." Josef Kohler, Urheberrecht an Schriftwerken und Verlagsrecht. (Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke, 1907), 76. Translation by Luis A. Sundkvist.

[9] On Nicolovius see Werner Stark, Nachforschungen zu Briefen und Handschriften Immanuel Kants (Berlin: Akademie Verlag 1993), 33.

[10] Arthur Warda, Die Druckschriften Immanuel Kants bis zum Jahre 1838 (Wiesbaden: Heinrich Staadt, 1919). Available online at:

[11] On the problem of Imperial privileges for unauthorised reprints see d_1806.

[12] "in der Ausführung immer mit einem gewissen Hang zur Weitläufigkeit zu kämpfen habe", quoted in Hermann Klenner's commentary to his edition of Kant, Rechtslehre: Schriften zur Rechtsphilosophie (East Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1988).

[13] Translation by W. Hastie, quoted here from:


The original German passage from the Metaphysik der Sitten (1797), § 31, reads:

"Was ist ein Buch?

Ein Buch ist eine Schrift (ob mit der Feder oder durch Typen, auf wenig oder viel Blättern verzeichnet, ist hier gleichgültig), welche eine Rede vorstellt, die jemand durch sichtbare Sprachzeichen an das Publicum hält. - Der, welcher zu diesem in seinem eigenen Namen spricht, heißt der Schriftsteller (autor). Der, welcher durch eine Schrift im Namen eines Anderen (des Autors) öffentlich redet, ist der Verleger. Dieser, wenn er es mit Jenes seiner Erlaubniß thut, ist der rechtmäßige; thut er es aber ohne dieselbe, der unrechtmäßige Verleger, d. i. der Nachdrucker. Die Summe aller Copeien der Urschrift (Exemplare) ist der Verlag.

Der Büchernachdruck ist von rechtswegen verboten.

Schrift ist nicht unmittelbar Bezeichnung eines Begriffs (wie etwa ein Kupferstich, der als Porträt, oder ein Gypsabguß, der als die Büste eine bestimmte Person vorstellt), sondern eine Rede ans Publicum, d. i. der Schriftsteller spricht durch den Verleger öffentlich. - Dieser aber, nämlich der Verleger, spricht (durch seinen Werkmeister, operarius, den Drucker) nicht in seinem eigenen Namen (denn sonst würde er sich für den Autor ausgeben); sondern im Namen des Schriftstellers, wozu er also nur durch eine ihm von dem letzteren ertheilte Vollmacht (mandatum) berechtigt ist. - Nun spricht der Nachdrucker durch seinen eigenmächtigen Verlag zwar auch im Namen des Schriftstellers, aber ohne dazu Vollmacht von demselben zu haben (gerit se mandatarium absque mandato); folglich begeht er an dem von dem Autor bestellten (mithin dem einzig rechtmäßigen) Verleger ein Verbrechen der Entwendung des Vortheils, den der letztere aus dem Gebrauch seines Rechts ziehen konnte und wollte (furtum usus); also ist der Büchernachdruck von rechtswegen verboten.

Die Ursache des rechtlichen Anscheins einer gleichwohl beim ersten Anblick so stark auffallenden Ungerechtigkeit, als der Büchernachdruck ist, liegt darin: daß das Buch einerseits ein körperliches Kunstproduct (opus mechanicum) ist, was nachgemacht werden kann (von dem, der sich im rechtmäßigen Besitz eines Exemplars desselben befindet), mithin daran ein Sachenrecht statt hat: andrerseits aber ist das Buch auch bloße Rede des Verlegers ans Publicum, die dieser, ohne dazu Vollmacht vom Verfasser zu haben, öffentlich nicht nachsprechen darf (praestatio operae), ein persönliches Recht, und nun besteht der Irrthum darin, daß beide mit einander verwechselt wird."

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