Isabella Alexander

The first statute to protect visual works against unauthorized copying was the Engravers’ Act, passed in the United Kingdom in 1735. The Act is commonly known as Hogarth’s Act due to the role played by the famous artist in its enactment. Hogarth was also involved in the first court case to invoke the Act’s protection, Blackwell v Harper (1740). However, he played a supporting role in that case, as a mere witness. The central character, one of the plaintiffs and the artist whose works were copied, was Elizabeth Blackwell. Moreover, the artistic works being litigated were not the imaginative engravings envisioned by the statute’s drafter, but botanical illustrations – works ‘copied from nature’. This case began, therefore, by putting in issue the very scope of the Act’s protection. It did so in relation to a rather unusual litigant: Elizabeth’s creative labour gave rise to the property rights in question but, as a married woman, she was theoretically unable to own property or bring legal proceedings under the doctrine of coverture. This chapter explores the case of Blackwell v Harper in detail, drawing on the legal archival record to investigate how the law was interpreted and applied, and uncovering the historical legal and social background against which the case was brought.