Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 6. The battle for Perpetual Copyright

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 6. The battle for Perpetual Copyright

At this time, the copyright of practically every book was in the hands of booksellers, and the statute was, in reality, a booksellers’ act. It would appear that authors did not at once realise the advantage which the new law conferred upon them, for they continued, in most cases to sell their work outright to booksellers, or publishers as they should perhaps be now called. Notwithstanding the definite time limit expressed in the act, publishers still clung to their belief in the existence of perpetual copyright in their properties, and continued, as of yore, to take from authors assignments of their work “for ever.” They not only believed in their right to a monoply in perpetuity, but backed that belief by purchasing copyrights on that basis, and by actions at law against those who, as they thought, infringed their privileges; and the cause of copyright continued to be fought by the publisher, the author counting for little or nothing in the conflict.

Two of the most important copyright cases of the eighteenth century arose out of one book. In 1729, James Thomson, for a payment of £242. 10s. od., assigned the copyright of The Seasons to Andrew Millar, his heirs and assigns for ever. In 1763, another bookseller, Robert Taylor, either relying upon the time limit of the act of 1709, or willing to take the risk of issuing a saleable book, brought out an edition of Thomson’s popular poem. Millar, thereupon, began an action against Taylor, and, in 1769—Millar, in the meantime, having died—the court of king’s bench delivered judgment in favour of the plaintiff. The claim to perpetual copyright was thus upheld by the court, and, at Millar’s sale in the same year, Thomas Becket thought the copyright of The Seasons a sufficiently good property to give £505 for it. But monopoly was now being threatened from a new quarter. Cheap editions of deceased English authors were being printed in Scotland, and a shop for the sale of these books was opened in London by Alexander Donaldson, an Edinburgh bookseller. One of these reprints was The Seasons, and Becket, naturally wishing to protect a property upon which he had adventured so substantial a sum, applied for an injunction in Chancery against the piracy; but the case, on being carried to the House of Lords, ended, in 1774, in Donaldson’s favour. Thus, the same book, which, in 1769, had, apparently, established the claim to perpetual copyright, was, also, the instrument through which the pretence to that right was finally abolished; and the period of copyright as defined by the statute of 1709 remained unchanged until 1814.