DOI: 10.1515/jlt-2024-2001 ISSN: 1862-5290

Die Literaturautonomie im deutschen Rechtssystem. Grenzen, Widersprüche und literaturtheoretische Potenziale

Nursan Celik
  • Pharmaceutical Science


So far, the question regarding literature’s autonomy has predominantly been discussed from a poetological and historical perspective, with legal manifestations and possibilities of aesthetic autonomy usually being neglected by literary theory. However, in no other area than in (German) jurisprudence it becomes more evident that the concept of an autonomous literary practice, or more precisely the attempt to guarantee it legally, is highly challenging and therefore comes with restrictions. On the one hand, literary practice is legally regarded as a free and autonomous social subsystem. On the other hand, it can easily lead to violations of fundamental rights, meaning that the freedom of art cannot be considered unrestricted and autonomous on a closer look.

In the following, the legal challenges of guaranteeing an unregulated literary practice will be discussed based on two fundamental legal rights, namely the freedom of art and copyright laws. The discussion proves to be significant for literary studies as well, as the legal tensions that are connected to the concept of literary autonomy have an influence on the practice of literature and thus also affect its theoretical reflection in literary studies and criticism. Because autonomy can mean several things, it is necessary to define the term ›autonomy‹ as used in this article first. After clarifying the concept of autonomy for the literary context, the focus lies on the legal discourse: The legal regulations in Germany regarding freedom of art and copyrights are first presented individually. Following this, the respective difficulties in guaranteeing the aforementioned legal rights are explained. A closer look will reveal that collisions are unavoidable, and that freedom of art and copyright laws sometimes even happen to be mutually exclusive. The challenges of literature’s autonomy in legal terms becomes particularly apparent by presenting the following two potential conflicts: The first conflict concerns collisions between freedom of art and a legal right of constitutionally similarly high rank, such as personal rights. The second potential conflict demonstrates why the freedom of art can hardly ever be reconciled with copyright provisions. The first case illustrates that the freedom of literary practice sometimes collides with other legal interests and can therefore be restricted, while the second one proves that a self-contradiction within the legal system exists when it comes to the notion of unrestricted autonomy.

The first conflict is discussed by revisiting the decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court regarding Maxim Biller’s novel Esra in 2007. The decision, albeit highly controversial, helps to understand why legal barriers are sometimes imposed on works of literature. Additionally, the Esra case shows the legal difficulties of enforcing a ban on novels without fundamentally calling into question the freedom of art. This is also demonstrated by the votes of the dissenting judges at the Federal Constitutional Court which further illustrate the irresolvable challenge between guaranteeing not to impose any legal restrictions on the practice of art, but sometimes doing so whenever the freedom of art collides with personal rights.

As a second example, the potential conflict that can arise when using the technique of literary collage or any other that involves adopting elements of existing literary or non-literary texts is discussed. Such a case is even more likely to result in a legal dilemma as there generally is a tension between freedom of art and copyright laws: although copyright laws can be subsumed under freedom of art and even serve as supportive of it, insofar as they aim at protecting the author as the intellectual owner of a work, they are not always beneficial to the freedom of art. This is best exemplified by the aesthetic technique of literary collage, for which the implementation of elements from other texts and media is characteristic and thus might easily conflict with copyright provisions. The example of literary collage demonstrates that without legal regulations some aesthetic practices might run the risk of infringing the respective copyrights as soon as an existing work of art is utilized partially for a new one.

This article concludes that the notion of literary autonomy shows to be self-contradictory when discussed from a legal perspective. This observation is not irrelevant for literary theory, insofar as literary autonomy, understood as an unregulated literary practice, thwarts its promise of freedom. As this article argues, the idea of literary autonomy therefore needs revision in literary studies, not least because of its challenging legal dimension.

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