Charles Dickens protests US copyright law

DickensWhile reading the excellent essay about how right-wing war politicians attack war opponents of disloyalty by Kevin Baker, I found another historical essay by Baker about how Charles Dickens and other writers complained about U.S failure to respect international copyright law:

At first, everything on his initial American tour went splendidly, and Dickens wrote with a certain awe "of the people that line the streets when I go out; of the cheering when I went to the theatre; of the copies of verses, letters of congratulation, welcomes of all kinds, balls, dinners, assemblies without end…" At a spectacular banquet in Boston, he made a graceful speech in which he praised leading American writers "as familiar to our [British] lips as household words." He went on to express the "hope the time is not far distant when they, in America, will receive of right some substantial profit and return in England from their labours; and when we, in England, shall receive some substantial profit and return in America from ours"—though Dickens assured his audience, "Pray do not misunderstand me…I would rather have the affectionate regard of my fellowmen than I would have heaps and mines of gold." The speech was received with what those in attendance described as wild, "tumultuous" applause. Yet the next day's newspapers were full of articles accusing him of bad taste, and having "created huge dissonance where all else was triumphant unison." Dickens, it seemed, had touched on an issue close to their mercenary hearts.

American newspapers and magazines competed in bribing English pressmen to get early sheets of British books. They were then rushed over to the U.S. by boat, where the jolly pirates worked their presses around the clock, churning out cheap, “instant” editions in a matter of hours.

But it was not only British authors they were robbing. Few publishers were willing to pay American authors for books, when they could purloin better-known British ones for free. Even so popular a writer as James Fenimore Cooper, had given up writing novels altogether by 1850. Herman Melville was also hurt by the lack of an international copyright, and even such eminent American authors as Emerson, Longfellow, and Nathaniel Hawthorne had to routinely pay publishers an advance in order to have their books produced.. The early giants of American literature had to scramble for work at customs houses and in other government jobs.

“Literature is at a sad discount,” wrote Edgar Allen Poe in the same year as Dickens’s visit. “Without an international copyright law, American authors may as well cut their throats.” According to biographer Sidney P. Moss, Poe had to raise advance money for one collection of poems by collecting 75 cents a head from his former West Point classmates—to whom he then dedicated the book.

(This anecdote is related by Dickens in his essay American Notes — now available as a LRF file at Mobileread ).

Baker provides a happy ending:

Yet time, and Americans’ unquenchable thirst for Dickens’s work, would heal all these wounds. Twenty-five years later he returned to these shores—and was treated to another rapturous reception. By that time, too, Dickens had found a way to reap at least some of the rewards for his work—a series of some seventy-six lectures and readings, which netted him the equivalent of $1.5-$2 million in today’s money from his ecstatic U.S. fans.

Many of his American brethren were not so fortunate. It was not until 1891 that an international copyright law was finally passed, and by then Poe had long since tumbled into alcoholism, and fatal despair, and Herman Melville had largely ceased to write. We can only conjecture as to how many other literary careers were stunted or abandoned altogether, thanks to the shortsighted greed of American publishers.

Comments: Perhaps Baker exaggerates to make a point. Compared to the inherent difficulties of making money as a writer, the possibility of earning foreign royalties in the 19th century doesn’t seem to make that all that much a difference. I suspect British authors were hurt a lot more than American ones. On the other hand, it increased the author’s fan base more than he could have dreamed. Dickens couldn’t directly profit from these publications, but nonetheless it enhanced Dickens’ reputation.

A better example would be Albanian writer Ismail Kadare . Because he wrote most of his works under Enver Hoxha’s communist regime (which didn’t honor international copyright), they could not be protected under copyright. In other words, any translator could publish a better translation of Kadare’s Doruntine and not have exclusive rights to do so. (The English translation of the French translation of the Albanian is predictably horrible). The French translation is copyrighted and can be protected, but the original Albanian text is not protected under copyright. (The Complete Review calls Kadare a poster boy for the “double translation” problem). But did it really hurt Kadare’s reputation? (in fact, he recently won the prestigious Man Booker literary award).

For those curious about Kadare, here’s a translation directly from the Albanian published in the New Yorker a year ago .

4 Comments on Charles Dickens protests US copyright law

  1. Anthony Trollope was also much excersized by the lack of international copyright protection. Here is an excerpt from his autobiography:

    I fancied that I knew that the opposition to an international
    copyright was by no means an American feeling, but was confined to
    the bosoms of a few interested Americans. All that I did and heard
    in reference to the subject on this further visit,–and having
    a certain authority from the British Secretary of State with me I
    could hear and do something,–altogether confirmed me in this view.
    I have no doubt that if I could poll American readers, or American
    senators,–or even American representatives, if the polling could
    be unbiassed,–or American booksellers, [Footnote: I might also say
    American publishers, if I might count them by the number of heads,
    and not by the amount of work done by the firms.] that an assent
    to an international copyright would be the result. The state of
    things as it is is crushing to American authors, as the publishers
    will not pay them a liberal scale, knowing that they can supply
    their customers with modern English literature without paying for
    it. The English amount of production so much exceeds the American,
    that the rate at which the former can be published rules the
    market. it is equally injurious to American booksellers,–except
    to two or three of the greatest houses. No small man can now acquire
    the exclusive right of printing and selling an English book. If
    such a one attempt it, the work is printed instantly by one of the
    leviathans,–who alone are the gainers. The argument of course is,
    that the American readers are the gainers,–that as they can get
    for nothing the use of certain property, they would be cutting their
    own throats were they to pass a law debarring themselves from the
    power of such appropriation. In this argument all idea of honesty
    is thrown to the winds. It is not that they do not approve of
    a system of copyright,–as many great men have disapproved,–for
    their own law of copyright is as stringent as is ours. A bold
    assertion is made that they like to appropriate the goods of other
    people; and that, as in this case, they can do so with impunity,
    they will continue to do so. But the argument, as far as I have been
    able to judge, comes not from the people, but from the bookselling
    leviathans, and from those politicians whom the leviathans are able
    to attach to their interests. The ordinary American purchaser is
    not much affected by slight variations in price. He is at any rate
    too high-hearted to be affected by the prospect of such variation.
    It is the man who wants to make money, not he who fears that he may
    be called upon to spend it, who controls such matters as this in
    the United States. It is the large speculator who becomes powerful
    in the lobbies of the House, and understands how wise it may
    be to incur a great expenditure either in the creation of a great
    business, or in protecting that which he has created from competition.

  2. I don’t see that the super-cache is enabled. Only the wp-cache part of it. The following string appears at the bottom of this page, even though I’ve never left a comment here before.

  3. bah, WP stripped out the “Cached page served by WP-Cache” bit, and I saw the “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” message and my comment after submitting it ..

  4. Hehe. the second comment doesn’t appear. Something weird happening there!

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