Australian Media Exec Uses Dickens & Shakespeare — Who Both Thrived Without Copyright — To Explain Why We Need More Copyright

from the wow dept

It’s really amazing the lengths to which some copyright maximalists will go to push their agenda. Take, for example, the CEO of News Ltd., (the Australian wing of Murdoch’s News Corp.), Kim Williams. In a keynote speech to the Australian International Movie Convention, he gave one those typical barn burner speeches about how the entertainment and media industry are collapsing due to infringement and that we need greater enforcement and new laws. Typical stuff. Of course, it’s almost entirely wrong. He seems to totally ignore the fact that there is an incredible renaissance in content production, with more and more of it happening every day. The idea that what’s happening has decreased the incentives to create is just not seen in the facts.

But, it gets even more ridiculous. To prove his point, he cites two great artists, whom, apparently in his mind, wouldn’t have created their great works absent copyright: William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens:

Illustrating his point, Mr Williams speculated what today’s artistic landscape would look like had Dickens and Shakespeare had to contend with digital piracy in the same epidemic proportions it now exists.

“Imagine the great works that are not being produced because the digital bandits are creating virtual pirate Globe Theatres and virtual literary magazines and making off with possibly 65 per cent of the profits,” Mr Williams said. Herald Sun Digital Pass

“If you think I’m exaggerating, think again, because the copyright bandits of the paper age of Shakespeare and Dickens had nothing on the copyright kleptomaniacs of the digital age.”

Well, first of all, there were no “copyright bandits” in Shakespeare’s age, because there was no copyright law. And yet — shocker of shockers — Shakespeare’s plays were still written. In fact, there’s a reasonable argument that if there had been copyright in Shakespeare’s day, many of his works wouldn’t have been written, since he copied liberally from many sources. Certainly, he took many of those other works and improved upon them, but that sort of thing violates copyright law today.

Dickens’ case is a bit more complicated. He, at least, lived in an era where copyright did exist (1 for 2, Williams), and spent his early years as the 19th century equivalent of a copyright maximalist. While his works were under copyright in the UK, the US did not recognize foreign copyrights, and thus — everyone assumes — his works were regularly printed and sold without his permission and with no royalties to Dickens. In fact, when he first toured the US in the 1840’s, he pissed off tons of adoring fans who came to see him speak… only to have him berate them for “pirating” his works.

Except… that’s not the whole story. You see, it turned out that American publishers realized that there was a benefit to being the first to print a foreign author, because those who got to market first tended to dominate the market. Thus, while there was no copyright, other voluntary agreements were hatched. For example, multiple publishing houses worked out deals to be “authorized” printers of Dickens’ work in the US and paid Dickens money anyway, in order to get the earliest copies of his works. Adrian Johns’ research highlights how Philadelphia publishing magnate Henry Carey paid Dickens to get early access to his works, knowing that being first would help get the most sales. Dickens also found that other publishers were willing to work out royalty agreements. Ticknor & Fields, Harper and Brothers and TP Peterson and Brothers, were all publishers who paid royalties to Dickens for the works they published (according to The Man Charles Dickens by Edward Wagenknecht). That book notes that Dickens “was grateful… for their generosity ‘above and beyond the law.'” Dickens also worked out additional deals with American publishers to get paid, and his second trip to the US was sponsored by a Boston-based publishing firm, Fields, Osgood & Co., who was then recognized as his “authorized American publisher” for his next work, despite no copyrights being valid for such works in the US.

While he still campaigned for strong copyright laws, multiple reports note that he found throngs of adoring fans in the US, all of whom only knew of his existence due to his books which they were able to read, despite a lack of copyright. In fact, he discovered that not only were fans showing up in large crowds to see him, they were willing to give him money, despite the lack of official copyright on his works.

End result? “He received so warm a welcome and so much faster money than he had ever earned as a writer that he returned home thinking much more positively about America and the Americans.”

Right. So, perhaps Shakespeare and Dickens aren’t the best examples for Williams to trot out for why he needs stricter copyright law. In fact, they seem to prove the exact opposite. Even in the near total absence of copyright law, both authors created truly long-lasting, culturally significant works, and earned quite a nice living doing so. In both cases, it was the freedom to have their works shared that helped to make them so culturally relevant, and in neither cases did they fail to earn a living, despite the situation (in fact, quite the contrary).

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Comments on “Australian Media Exec Uses Dickens & Shakespeare — Who Both Thrived Without Copyright — To Explain Why We Need More Copyright”

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Jay (profile) says:

Doing it wrong

Mike, I think it’s time to recognize that you’re doing this wrong. You have been fighting for authors and artists and I’m sure they appreciate it. But this lie that artists and authors have to stop. So here is how we can do this:

Let’s stop and ask one simple question of every poster child of why copyright does not work. Every CEO, executive, financial officer and publisher who wants to crush a developer…

What have you done?

That should be the first question out of every article from now on. The artists have routed around the gatekeepers. The authors are ignoring the medalists and we, the people, are seeing the violent corporate reaction of the people at the to who don’t get it.

The never created one iota of culture, merely did their best to keep it to themselves. These nameless CEOs have done away with the rule of law to make people out to be criminals. And for what? For everyone that doesn’t give them money, we must be stealing? Show me what these people have done. Show me what these executives have created and tried to monetize. Show me how these people bust their ass making millions that artists will never see on shows that rely on artists and authors creating stories that their fans enjoy. Hell, show me a financial statement that says they give ten percent of their earnings to the development team that does all the work. But don’t tell me that these people in rich suits have the right to come before an artist and say how their work should benefit the one highest on the totem pole.

Vog (profile) says:

Re: Doing it wrong

How can you say this, when these CEOs and executive directors have depended on artists for their continued existence? You would deprive them of their quality of life just because they went to college instead of create some elitist, “community-organized” garage band and rode on handouts all the way to the top?

Jay, these are people who have worked their noses to the bone influencing people just so they can have a job. I’m disappointed that you would question the money they take home just to support such hobbies as luxury car collecting, cocaine, or falconry. We all know motherfucking eagles don’t buy themselves.

freeinternet777 (profile) says:

Re: Doing it wrong

One thing I have learnt through this debate on copyright…in the definition of the law it is not theft. They call it theft because they feel you, not have stolen the object they have the rights to, no, they know that…the theft part comes from their pain that you stole income from them that their rights entitled them to. In short, when someone calls it theft these days I think ‘copyright maximist’. One day soon, no one will call it theft, we can continue to debate and get on with deciding what this hideous law is doing to our world.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Damn Public Domain

Without Shakespeare’s work being in Public Domain we’d have no…
West Side Story (Romeo & Juliet)
Forbidden Planet (Tempest)
Kiss Me Kate (Taming of the Shrew)
My Own Private Idaho (Henry IV/Henry V)
All Night Long (Othello)
Ran (King Lear)
…among others.
Not to mention all the film and tv performances of the plays themselves.

Without Dickens’ work being in Public Domain we’d have no…
Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol
Diva’s Christmas Carol
(OK, most of the Dickens adaptations are variations of “A Christmas Carol”, but there’s LOTS of them!)
and the original novels from Oliver Twist to Tale of Two Cities and short stories have been directly-adapted into hundreds of tv and film productions!

Anonymous Coward says:

the man is obviously a complete dick head. according to the article here:

he refers to ‘movie downloading as ?scumbag theft? carried out by ?copyright bandits?’

strange terminology considering who he works for and what his bosses have just been in the shit for doing and are going to be prosecuted for doing. hypocrisy at it’s worst! the utterings of someone who knows he may well be on the verge of losing his job because of the failure of his business to adapt to the digital age and supply customers with all they want, all they have been asking for for years ‘all supplied under one roof’

Colin Davidson (profile) says:

This is really funny.There are works of Shakespeare that we have Today originated from knock-off copies by competing play companies (the Shakespeare orignals having been completely lost). In Elizabethan times, the London theatre scene was intensely competitive and if one had a smash hit, the others would try to stage it as soon as they possibly could. In most ways, content theft was a bigger problem for Shakespeare than it is for content creators Today.

Hardly a debating point in favour of strict copyright laws.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Don’t forget the huge body of work based on Shakespeare’s plays that have only been possible because they weren’t under copyright and/or are firmly in the public domain. He’s not only arguing for a situation that would have stopped his plays from existing, but also many notable and successful works derived directly from them. That’s not even considering the fact that one of the reasons why his plays are so entrenched in schools is because they don’t attract extra expenses, and thus many people have been influenced by his work as a direct result of the lack of copyright.

This is the grasp of the facts that maximalists seem to have…

Rikuo (profile) says:

He also goes on to say that internet downloading is worse than the London Riots.

So millions of people click a button on a screen is somehow worse than thousands of people taking to the streets, burning buildings and generally causing mayhem.

Methinks this exec needs to take his meds. He’s confused the real world with the virtual world.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s interesting, I posted on another article earlier that he mentions a third of Australians download/share illicit (copyrighted) content. And yet you see a very small proportion of the Australian population goes around killing people. Why is that? Because Australians support laws that forbid killing other human beings but they seem to completely ignore copyright when it applies to private usage.

When the law is not respected by the society, what makes one think that making it even more draconian will make people respect it? It comes down to the Alcohol Prohibition. People simply don’t accept it. And if you think on light drugs such as marijuana and the likes it is heading the same way.

The shills, the MAFIAA, the Pope, they can whine as much as they want, if society doesn’t accept any law, they won’t follow it and no amount of enforcement will make this change. Actually, there’s no feasible way to provide enough enforcement (or jail cells heh) for that many ppl.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What do you expect? Of course people clicking buttons on screens is worse!

Rioting destroys physical products and costs millions of dollars in damage.

Clicking buttons on screens has been RIAAly proven to cause incalculable damage! But to be reasonable, they refer to it as “quadrillions of dollars” in damage.

James Plotkin (profile) says:

Yeah, this guy is a little radical. He also chose a bad example in Shakespeare. The first copyright law was enacted in 1709…

Dickens on the other hand (as Mike mentions) was a strong supporter of intellectual property rights. In fact, from what I’ve read, he was rather disheartened to find out that Americans were not honoring his copyrights. I’ve never heard of the “throngs of fans” paying him anyways (although I don’t doubt Mike’s research in this instance).

Taking it down a notch from where the Williams fellow was going, his underlying point may not be without merit despite his poor choice of examples and flamboyant hyperbole.

The same way it’s unfair to compare then with now from the “pirate” perspective, it’s also inaccurate to compare it from the creators perspective.

What Williams doesn’t consider is that today, considering the power of the Internet to diffuse content, copyright is less important then it once was. Shakespeare and Dickens would likely be the object of piracy today as well. I just don’t think that piracy would affect their bottom line as profoundly.

Shakespeare and co. had to rely on patronage. If his play was plagiarized, and that person performed it first, Shakespeare would be caught with no way to profit from his creation. Today, on the other hand, it may be in Shakespeare’s best interest to release the script for free online to entice patrons to come to see his show (and pay for admission). In the 17th century, such marketing strategies would likely have been harder to implement.

For these reasons, I’m one of those who believe that copyright laws need to be reevaluated in light of the way people make use of copyrighted content in the 21st century. Unlike some people on here, I believe in copyright protection. I believe that a creator should retain a large degree of control over the exploitation and dissemination of his work. That said, I don’t believe the pre-digital copyright doctrines necessarily have much of a place in the digital arena.

Anonymous Coward says:

out of curiosity, anyone know how many films and books have been produced from Dickens’s and Shakespeare’s works? where did the permission come from for those works to be produced by the various authors and movie studios?

seems to me that, like most of the entertainment industries execs, all they are good for is blaming everyone else for what is going ‘wrong’ in their industries. they know where the blame actually lies but haven’t got enough guts to admit that it is their own fault and then do something sensible about it!

James Plotkin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I just want to point out that the copyright holder does have the right to authorize (as much as he has the right to exclude).

It’s unfair to say that if the Dickens and Shakespeare works were in copyright, none of these derivative works would be made. That would only be true if the copyright holder didn’t want anyone creating anything having to do with their work; which is kind of rare when the goal of most copyright holders is to expose their work and profit from that exposure.

Would Shakespeare have charged exorbitantly to license his material? maybe. But there’s little reason to assume that he would.

Copyright doesn’t prevent works from being disseminated. Copyright holders do.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Well, first of all, there were no “copyright bandits” in Shakespeare’s age, because there was no copyright law.”

Well, actually, it’s because the printing press was still a pretty uncommon thing, and piracy at that point would have basically been taking his works and writing them out by hand. There is no need to explain to you why this doesn’t compare to the current digital scourge that piracy has become.

Further, let’s be fair here: Shakespeare really wasn’t all that back in his day, his popularity is really more of a late 19th and 20th century rediscovery of his works, which is fine because, even with today’s copyright laws, would have been far into the public domain.

Shakespeare in the current world? He would probably be retired after writing a few seasons of Cramer or something like that.

another mike says:

Re: Re:

“piracy at that point would have basically been taking his works and writing them out by hand”

It’s worse than that. In his day, pirating Shakespeare’s plays required access to a stage and cast of players. So few people were literate that a copy of the script was generally useless. The only way to pirate a play was to perform it before the author did.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yes people would have to write it by hand just like people today have to create subtitles by hand, read out loud books to create audio books.

I don’t think you appreciate how much work goes into making a quality good pirate product.

The same type of work that would cost hundreds of thousand of dollars is done for free by pirates.

Busy, busy pirates.

Dionaea (profile) says:

OMG! SMART publishers?!

“You see, it turned out that American publishers realized that there was a benefit to being the first to print a foreign author, because those who got to market first tended to dominate the market.”

Apparently publishers back then were smarter then they are now, at least back then they understood the customers want the newest of the new and that they want it yesterday. Quite different from the current release window and ‘not available in your area’ crap |D

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: OMG! SMART publishers?!

Yes, but that takes actual work, and costs more because you have to woo the content creators into giving you exclusive content to publish before everyone else. It’s much easier to just sit back and profit off of what you published years ago, and control all the possible outlets for new content. This is why they fear the digital revolution in content publishing, it makes it too easy to get your content from places not controlled by them.

Copyright has never truly been about protecting the content creators, but about protecting the publishers. And the publishers know this.

Beta (profile) says:


Mr. Williams doesn’t seem to be claiming that Shakespeare or Dickens couldn’t have succeeded if their works had been copied (their works were copied, and the authors did succeed). Nor is he claiming that either author couldn’t have been a success today.

He claiming that they couldn’t have succeeded, and would never have written their great works if they had been working with all the limitations of their time in addition to the alleged burdens of 21st century piracy.

Well, let’s try it: suppose Shakespeare’s plays were flashed all across Europe, copied and translated at almost no cost, performed without royalties. And Shakespeare himself had to make do with scriveners and could tour no faster than a horse-drawn cart… No, I still think he’d do better than without the “piracy”.

To get Mr. Williams argument to hold water we’ll have to throw in a few more offenses to logic. How about if Shakespeare still charged only a penny for admission (or three for a good seat with a cushion), but had to pay modern Actor’s Guild rates? What if Dickens had to write by hand, but only using HP ink cartridges?

Seriously, here’s the problem:

“Imagine the great works that are not being produced because the digital bandits are creating virtual pirate Globe Theatres and virtual literary magazines and making off with possibly 65 per cent of the profits?

First he begs the question by asking us to assume that the great works are not being produced. But even if we forgive that and just look at the “bandits” taking 65%, he’s still asking us to assume that the total profits will hold rock-steady as these 16th-century digiteratii are creating all kinds of new media. It’s bad math and bad logic, just like saying “imagine the great works are not being produced because the goose-quill pens that their authors use are no longer made, thanks to modern ball-points and animal-protection laws.”

Kurt Wimmer says:

Sorry, but the guy had a point.

I don’t want to jump in on the normative issue of whether the News Ltd. executive was right or wrong on his overall view of copyright. But he was right that Shakespeare took advantage of copyright-like protections. The Statute of Anne was not passed until 1710, but printing monopolies flourished in England beginning in about 1400 when the Stationers Company was given the a monopoly on printing licenses. Shakespeare’s printer took advantage of these monopolies — if you go to Stationer’s Hall in London, you can see his signature on the rollbooks. In Ireland, King Dermot adjudicated a copyright dispute in 560. Germany and Venice had copyright laws in the 1500s. Yes, there was piracy (and it was called that) in Shakespeare’s day. Whether the analogy was any good, of course, is anybody’s view.

Papafox says:

Dickens had major copyright problems

I don’t know about Shakespeare, but Dickens fought a long campaign to gain copyright protection.

The Pickwick Papers (1837) is dedicated to Thomas Noon Talford, an MP and lawyer who introduced a copyright bill in 1836. Dickens (as a newspaper reporter) followed Talford’s bill, applauding it in articles for The Morning Chronicle. Later, Talford would represent Dickens when he sued Richard Egan Lee and Henry Hewitt for their plagiarism of A Christmas Carol.

Dickens ran a vociferous campaign against rampant piracy by American book publishers. Dickens published much of his stories as serials. As fast a he could write Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist, American publishers would print unauthorised editions, selling tens of thousands of copies and pocket the proceeds without sending a penny to Boz.

Young Charles Dickens, in the process of being lionized by his Yankee readers, dared to assert that, had American publishers paid Sir Walter Scott appropriate royalties for his works re-printed in the United States from Marmion in 1808 to Castle Dangerous in 1832, he would not have faced bankruptcy in the middle of his career and would not have died at the age of 61, broken in body and mind by years of financial difficulties, and “unjustly deprived of his rightful income” (Ackroyd 350). Further, he alluded to the disgraceful treatment of Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), retired Royal Naval officer turned author, who established residency by means of his 1837 tour, but was subsequently denied copyright protection by American courts unless he were prepared to renounce his status as a British subject and become an American citizen.

The rowdy American press, particularly in New York, soon disabused Dickens of his utopian notions vis a vis copyright. Americans, expecting him to be grateful for their warm reception, were staggered when this young British goodwill ambassador at the beginning of 1842, at a dinner held in his honour in Boston, dared to criticize them as pirates while urging the merits of international copyright, which at that point in American history would have seen vast amounts of Yankee capital heading overseas with little reciprocation. He did not back down. A week later, in Hartford, he argued that a native American literature would flourish only when American publishers were compelled by law to pay all writers their due, rather than being able to publish the works of any foreign author for free, a bad custom which only serve to discourage literary production by American citizens. Although the American people were divided on the question of the United States’s joining the international copyright union, book, newspaper, and magazine publishers were utterly opposed, and successfully lobbied against any such move in Congress. Undaunted, Dickens circulated a pro-copyright letter which he and a number of other British writers had signed, firm in the belief of the righteousness of their cause.

Ultimately, Dickens campaign to have the United States join the international copyright treaties failed. America kept it’s own copyright system, which only protected American authors until the 1970’s.

Dickens died a wealthy man.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Dickens had major copyright problems

re: “Ultimately, Dickens campaign to have the United States join the international copyright treaties failed. America kept it’s own copyright system, which only protected American authors until the 1970’s.”

See US International Copyright Act of 1891. Note protectionist manufacturing clause.

Berne: 1886. US joins: a century later.

freeinternet777 (profile) says:

To add, I lost interest when he was saying the world is more productive and creative with copyright. How creative will the world be if the consumers still paid the price we pay for the creations and the middlemen and the creators ‘swap’ the incomes each is receiving now? I reason that if creators are paid what the distributors are getting then the world will be inundated with creativity. Mind you, money isnt what it is about you know. The middlemen have something higher under current copyright – power.

Kevin (profile) says:

Murdoch the greatest copyright thief

Ever read a Murdoch publication. every day his newspapers reek of plagiarism, or other words unauthorized republication of other’s works.
Also Murdoch is heavily involve in TV which is under as big a threat as newspapers.
His empire is backing a political party that wants to stifle the laying of optical fibre hence keep high speed internet out of the reach of the people. High speed internet is TV’s biggest threat.
Murdoch and his editors etc are interested in one thing only, keeping the status quo. Murdoch and his management will do what ever is deemed necessary to protect the empire.

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