April 13, 2010

Stedman and the International Copyright Act of 1891

The passing of the International Copyright Act of 1891 was certainly reason to celebrate. It marked the first time that United States law protected foreign books, preventing piracy. Up to this point, many books printed overseas (particularly British ones) were republished without the author's permission at no cost to the publisher. This meant that potential American authors were shunned by publishers who did not want to pay for new works. Why pay a new author when you can just steal from an established one? Some authors, like Washington Irving, did the extra work to copyright their writings twice (on different continents) for better protection.

The passage of this new law was important enough that, on April 13, 1891, a group of writers gathered in New York to celebrate. This group had worked hard to promote better copyright law and, as such, took the name the American Copyright League. Presiding over the celebration was critic and poet Edmund Clarence Stedman, who broke down the importance of the occasion this way:

You know, gentlemen, that this was fought for, during many years, chiefly on grounds relative to the welfare of American authors and the development of a home literature. For one, I always have felt that the wrongs experienced by foreign writers, however prejudicial to our reputation among nations, and outrageous as they were, have been less severe than the cruel ills so long inflicted upon our own men of letters — of less moment than the repression of American ideas, the restricted growth of our national literature.

Stedman gave credit to the many who fought for copyright law before him, including William Cullen Bryant and George Palmer Putnam. He did acknowledge that both foreign authors and home-grown authors should be thankful for the new law. "Primarily, this is an author's jubilee," he said. "We hope that foreign authors — and especially our English fellows of the craft — are rejoicing, are rejoicing just a little."

1 comment:

  1. Hello Rob,

    It was not until I began reading biographies of Poe, Hawthorne, and other nineteenth-century American authors that I realized how big this non-copyright thing was. No wonder that, along with the Panic of 1837 (and probably a number of other things), so many writers dwelled in poverty. Kudos to Bryant, Putnam, and Stedman.