Charles Dickens protests US copyright law
September 6, 2007 | 5:57 pm
By Robert Nagle
While 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.
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 .