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).

Filed Under: australia, charles dickens, copyright, kim williams, william shakespeare
Companies: news ltd.


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  1. identicon
    Papafox, 21 Aug 2012 @ 5:45pm

    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.

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