May 21, 2010

Simms fights for copyright

The 1840s were a terrible time for American writers, who struggled to protect their works without international copyright. Several writers had already voiced their opinion. From his Woodlands estate, novelist/poet William Gilmore Simms wrote an open letter on the topic on May 21, 1844.

The letter, which took up nearly 20 two-column pages in the Southern Literary Messenger's August 1844 issue, was directly addressed to South Carolina Congressman Isaac Holmes. It begins:

The discovery of printing took the world by surprise and authors not less than all the rest... But, in truth, their rights were not invaded for a long while after the discovery of printing.

Simms goes on to discuss the history of printing and its impact on society and authors, as well as the development of different versions of copyright and other protections — in detail. Common Law, he says, should protect writers but does not and, as such, a more explicit law on the books is required. He goes on:

It is an error to say, or to suppose that the object of Government is the greatest good of the greatest number. Were this so, no man would enter society at all. Society would be fatal to his individuality... Its true object is the security of the individual man... It is individual life and property which needs and claims protection.

Simms notes that writers deserve the right of protection of their property more than all others. They do not seek property elsehwere, as a miner for gold, but as the "sole creator, almost without agent or implement of any sort." These creations, he says, spring from nowhere and cannot be controlled.

But control was necessary, he contends. Despite the claim that the British dislike American books, piracy of American writers was abundant. Simms writes, "hundreds of American works have been republished in England, without the privity of the author, frequently without his name and sometimes with a most base perversion of it to make it pass for original and European." What's worse, American publishers are doing the same to British writers.

Further, by controlling our own publications, we also choose what will be published abroad, perhaps allowing American writers the chance to earn respect from British critics who continuously dismiss American writing.

Our securities against foreign injustice, slander and reproach, are to be found in native authorship, as certainly as that our protection against a maritime enemy, is in having an adequate number of stout frigates of our own.

The fight for international copyright continued throughout most of the 19th century.

*The image above is a portrait of Simms now owned by the American Portrait Gallery. Digital file is courtesy of the William Gilmore Simms Society.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting as there is currently a movement on right now to reform copyright especially with regard to materials in alternate formats. When the Harry Potter books came out in braille each country in the world had to create its own copy under its own copyright because copyright law says you can't share.