Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 15. The Struggle for an International Copyright Law

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXIX. Book Publishers and Publishing

§ 15. The Struggle for an International Copyright Law

But the great outstanding factor in the history of our publishing in the nineteenth century is the absence of and the struggle for an international copyright law. Much of the development of the short story in America, the rise to commanding position of the American magazine, the stifling of the American playwright for three quarters of a century, and the desperate struggle of all save our greatest novelists against grave difficulties until 1891 may be traced to the want of such a law.

In 1790 Congress passed a national law for the protection of literary property; and in those days of non-professional authorship and of dependence upon Europe, it no doubt thought that the situation had been fully met, even though as early as 1782 Jeremy Belknap was gathering advice as to how he might prevent himself being pirated in London. But when professional authorship began in America with Morse, the geographer, Webster, and Brown, a new influence was introduced, for the rewards of American authorship, in fact, the possibility of American authorship in some cases, and the tenor of American publications are inextricably inwoven with the international copyright law.

Beginning with Scott’s novels, the American publishers, who before had not been numerous enough to interfere seriously with each other or able to supply the demands for British classics, entered on an absorbing race in speed of publications and in underselling powers. In 1823 Carey & Lea of Philadelphia received advance copies of cantos eleven and thirteen of Byron’s Don Juan. It was immediately given out to thirty-five or forty compositors, and within thirty-six hours an American edition was on sale. Later equally marvellous tales come down to us of speed in translating the last French success.

When in 1838 the Great Western and the Sirius, the first vessels to cross the Atlantic entirely by steam, arrived at New York, the great idea dawned upon a certain class of publishers that with this close connection journalism might be made of literature. Accordingly there sprang up a large number of mammoth weeklies for the republication in cheap form of whatever, in this eager age of reading, promised to be popular as it issued from the European press. For instance, Zanoni was published in the spring of 1842 by the Harpers, and in The New World, and in Brother Jonathan, and the price went as low as six cents. The better class of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic tried to do at least a nominal justice to the authors they republished, and instituted a system of payment for advance sheets or copies. Such luxuries of conscience, however, were not indulged in by many; and as soon as a reputable American publisher had issued a book that held the promise of a sale, the pirates rushed out an edition. Sometimes owing to the uncertainty of the ocean transit they were even able to get out the first one. In self-defence the respectable firms began a retaliatory war of underselling; and having a sounder financial basis, they won in the contest. Then ensued an arrangement, more or less irritatingly defective, known as trade courtesy, whereby an understanding with an overseas author was respected. But after the Civil War, under the stress of economic readjustment, chaos came again.

In 1837 the first recorded movement in the United States was taken towards international copyright. In the next five years numerous petitions for a law, signed by many prominent authors on both sides of the Atlantic, were presented to Congress. Some of the publishers soon became interested in the movement, one of the first and most aggressive being G. P. Putnam. Opposed to it for some time were, most prominently, the Harpers; but the chief centre of opposition was Philadelphia. For a while, ending with 1850, the British laws had been interpreted so as to protect American interests, but the golden opportunity was allowed to pass. On the part of the opponents of the law there was a tendency to confuse it with the protective tariff; and above all did they contend that American education would be injured by the increased price of books and by the fact that European works could not be adapted to our needs. Through the American Copyright League founded in 1883 and the American Publishers’ Copyright League (1887) especially was the struggle finally brought to a victorious close in 1891. The chief effects up to the present of the law seem to be threefold. There has been a tremendous and immediate widening of the circle of readers the average author may address. Branch houses have been established on both sides of the Atlantic, and existing houses have been enabled to broaden greatly their appeal to the reading public. Chief among such firms in America are The Macmillan Company, Longmans, Green and Co., G. P. Putnam’s Sons, The Oxford University Press, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and E. P. Dutton and Company. But, above all, there has resulted an immense stimulus to the possibilities of American literature through the securing of adequate returns to our authors.

The three professional authors already referred to were fortunate in that in two cases they published works of such nature that American superiority of domestic information or a growing feeling of nationalism could be enlisted in their behalf. Brown came before closeness of communication and the latest great success could unite to rob him of even his slender gains, for though Morse and Webster and, later, Barnes, Andrews, Anthon, and Stephens made fortunes through the authorship of school books, belles-lettres were but a sorry crutch indeed until well within the nineteenth century. European, especially British, supplies were too cheap and plentiful.

Goodrich, speaking of the time about 1820, says that “it was positively injurious to the commercial credit of a book-seller to undertake American works unless they might be Morse’s Geographies, classical books, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, or something of that class.” Hawthorne’s The Devil in Manuscript has a passage of like tenor; and as late as 1886 Dana Estes of Boston testified before the Senate Committee on Patents:

  • For two years past though I belong to a publishing house that emits nearly $1,000,000 worth of books per year, I have absolutely refused to entertain the idea of publishing an American manuscript. I have returned scores, if not hundreds, of manuscripts of American authors, unopened even, simply from the fact that it is impossible to make the books of most American authors pay, unless they are first published and acquire recognition through the columns of the magazines.