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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