Charles Dickens and the American Copyright Problem | Creative Law Center

Charles Dickens and the American Copyright Problem

The battle against international piracy and the struggle by writers, artists and content creators to earn a fair living from their work are not new problems. They did not arrive with the digital revolution, the rise of the internet or the ease of right-click, copy and paste.

Piracy of creative work could probably be traced back to the advent of the written word if not the dawn of language itself. During the life of Charles Dickens, the controversy over piracy was slapping hard at the American shores. Dickens’s work was not protected by American copyright laws and was ruthlessly plundered by American publishers.

A Christmas Carol Stolen

Within two weeks of the publication of A Christmas Carolvolumes reportedly were selling on the streets of New York for pennies. Dickens’s objection to the loss of income as a result of America’s disrespect for his ownership rights was loud and bold.

American writers fared no better in Great Britain. The works of Edgar Allen Poe and Henry Wordsworth Longfellow found no protection in London and its environs. The United States simply did not honor the copyrights of authors who were not American citizens and, as a result, Great Britain would not honor the copyrights of American authors.

Dickens maintained that the monetary damage to English authors was significantly greater than that of the Americans. Dickens may have thought the work of more reknowned English writers was superior to the Americans’ work.

But the fact is that the American market was enormous and the income to be earned by book sales at a fair market price in the US dwarfed the potential in England purely by virtue of the size of the ever growing audience in the States.

Traveling Inkstand, 1814-15, silver (1 ⅜ x 1 ⅞ x 1 ⅞ in. (3.5 x 4.8 x 4.8 cm)) www.metmuseum.org

With a treasure trove of English literature free for the taking, American publishers simply didn’t pay authors, especially unknown American authors, for their work. Without a day job, writers would starve (think Edgar Allen Poe) or go bankrupt (think Sir Walter Scott). The lack of an international copyright enforcement scheme undermined the ability of writers on either side of the pond to earn a living.

Dickens Offends the Fan Base

When Charles Dickens made his first trip to to America in 1842, he was welcomed like a rock star. The cheap, pirated copies of his early works like The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist had spread quickly through the reading public and served to build an American tribe who adored him.

Dinners and parties were held in his honor. He was received warmly by many of America’s greatest literary dignitaries of the time including Longfellow, Daniel Webster, Washington Irving and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Instead of graciously accepting the adulation of the public, Dickens used his celebrity to excoriate American publishers for oppressing the creative class (and himself in particular) by stealing their work. He argued for the American adoption of international copyright law to protect foreign writers in the US and American writers abroad.

Dickens’s view on the subject was not well received.

Piracy Lines the Publishers’ Pocketbooks

The publishing industry in America at the time operated like a great vanity press. Writers such as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Longfellow often had to pay publishers in advance to have their books published.

The prevailing view among publishers was that an author’s concern for income cheapened his art; that once a book was written, it belonged to the public, not the author. When a copyright bill was proposed in Congress in 1837, the lobby against it was made up of papermakers, type founders, printers, and binders. America was reeling from a banking crisis and recession. An American copyright law would mean that jobs would be lost.

What matters a few starving writers against such a calamity?

Dickens’s advocacy of copyright law was punished by the American Press as an attempt to upend the publishing industry and attack their profit center — royalty-free content. They set out to ruin his reputation. Surprisingly, even Walt Whitman jumped on the anti-copyright, Dickens-is-an-evil-agent-of-the-British crusade.

Dickens ended his first visit to America surprised and dismayed at how the popular tide had turned against him.

When he returned in 1867, he had mastered a way to generate alternative income streams based on his celebrity status. He performed readings of his work to packed houses and collected the receipts from the door. He also gave the exclusive rights to his next novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood to the American publishing house that sponsored his reading tour. He was ultimately unable to take advantage of that deal. Dickens died in 1870 before he finished the book.

Early American Copyright Law

The first reciprocal international copyright protections were granted in the United States in 1891. They were precipitated by the Berne Convention in 1886 which was signed by a core group of countries who agreed to treat the rights of authors from other signatory countries as well as they did their own. (The US did not become a signatory to the Berne Convention until 1988, more than a hundred years later.)

By 1891, Mr. Dickens had left us. He had, however, given us the ghost of copyright future.

About the Author

Kathryn Goldman helps artists, writers, and other creative professionals make a living from their art by teaching them how to protect their work and enforce their rights. She is an attorney who writes these posts to help you be more thoughtful about intellectual property and the law when you write your stories, create your art, and build your business.

  • David Hench says:

    Ha! The ghost of copyright future. Great closing. I knew a little about the Poe/Twain/Dickens “copyright abroad” imbroglios … but nothing of the Berne Convention. I’m a big fan of Dickens and particularly “A Christmas Carol” and love hearing the details. Seen I think all the versions and collect copies of the text.

  • Ric Fink says:

    Very interesting blog post! In the computer industry copyright and copying issues have been a part of the field from the very beginning. Due to the ease of coping floppies (a diskette) “sharing” instantly became common place in the MSDOS days. One of the early DOS word processors after WordStar was WordPerfect. After a few years of incredible success in the U.S. they decided to take their product to Europe. Their initial roll out was Italy.

    The “joke” is that after 1 week in Italy they were very happy to see over 2,000 units of WordPerfect being used daily. The bad part was that they had actually only sold 4 units! It was following WordPerfect’s experience that another company, Lotus 1-2-3, introduced their infamous Key Diskette for Copy Protection of their spreadsheet software. IP piracy had gone digital!

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      And the DRM debate began! Thanks for the comment, Ric.

  • Thom Reece says:

    What a great Christmas Eve read, Kathryn. Thanks! I am a big fan of Dickens {who isn’t?} and love both his books and the films made from them. “A Christmas Carol” is a ‘must see’ during the holiday season. The George C. Scott version is my favorite… but they are all good.

    I was totally oblivious to the backstory of Dickens copyright issues… and found that to be both informative, and illustrative of his personality. He was a complicated man and, perhaps, one of histories most interesting characters.

    Thanks again for the treat.

    I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a very prosperous and happy 2016.

    Thom Reece

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Thom. I like A Christmas Carol (I’ve never seen the George C. Scott version), but Great Expectations is my favorite Dickens book. Happy New Year to you, too.

  • Wow! This exactly what I see among artists today. Unknown (or lesser known) artists are expected to gratefully give their work away and artists with standing or gallery representation are still expected to set modest prices and make donations. And yes, crass economic interests are thought to diminish the purity of the artist’s vision. Ah well. We sell a lot of greeting card prints of artist’s larger, original work. I guess $5 is about right.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Yes Charlotte, those “crass economic interests” like groceries and rent. Hard to believe that writers and artists need those things — such nerve asking to be paid for their work.

  • Bob Schueler says:

    Thanks for this interesting post.
    I recently read The Bookaneer, by Matthew Pearl, which deals with this issue in an interesting way. You root, for most of the book at least, for the book pirates who are taking advantage of the lack of transatlantic copyright protection. It doesn’t highlight Dickens’ role in getting the two countries aligned, though it does refer to that process.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Excellent recommendation, Bob. I just added it to my TBR list.

  • Thanks for bringing forth this important bit of history, Kathryn. All creative artists owe forerunners like Dickens a huge amount of gratitude for their fight for copyright laws in favor of the artist!

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Of course, his advancement of the rights of artists stemmed from self-interest (at least in part, maybe mostly). But he had the prestige and following to move the ball forward on behalf of others who did not.

      Thanks for the comment, Dianne.

      • If we spoke the absolute truth, we all are motivated by self-preservation, aren’t we, to some degree?
        Best wishes for the holiday, Kathryn.

        • Kathryn Goldman says:

          And to you, Dianne.

  • Simon Mayeski says:

    Thanks, Kathryn. I don’t think most of the reading and writing public are aware of any of this fascinating history of American and international copyright. Thanks for sharing and will do the same 🙂

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      There are many interesting aspects to the story. One is that Dickens turned to public performance to regain the income lost to piracy. That’s what most musicians are doing today. Thanks for the comment, Simon.

  • Very interesting – thanks for sharing.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Thanks, Mary Ann. I knew you would enjoy a good historical anecdote with your morning coffee. Especially about one of the greatest self-published writers ever.

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