February 19, 2012

Mathews/Dickens: miserable economic subterfuge

170 years ago, a 30-year old Charles Dickens toured the United States with much fanfare as a celebrity author. In New York City, a grand dinner was thrown in his honor at the City Hotel. One of the speakers at the dinner took the opportunity to rail against a concern shared by Dickens and most other authors, be they English or American: the lack of international copyright. Cornelius Mathews was invited to speak by Washington Irving on that evening, February 19, 1842, and began his speech by noting that his thoughts on copyright were not new, but they were "convictions carefully considered and long entertained."

Mathews praised Dickens as a recognized genius for his authorship abilities whose rights should be equally recognized. But Dickens's books were often reprinted in the United States without his permission, implying, Mathews argued, "that authors have no rights," and that they are merely irrelevant third parties in the overseas paper-dealing trade. Calling it "miserable economic subterfuge," Mathews warned that the result was "a great war between a foreign and a native literature." American publishers grew rich off pirating English editions, and often refused to publish American authors because they would have to pay them. This, in turn, resulted in a lack of effort to improve American writing. As Mathews argued:

What, sir, is the present condition of the field of letters in America? It is in a state of desperate anarchy—without order, without system, without certainty. For several years past, it has been sown broad-cast with foreign publications of every name and nature. What growth has ensued? No single work, so far as I can see, has sprung up as its legitimate result; no addition to the stock of native poetry or fiction; no tree has blossomed; no solitary blade struck through the hard and ungrateful turf. Whatever has been produced has been in spite of opposition from within and without; has been the bright exception, not the rule. Instead of being fostered and promoted, as it should be, our domestic literature is borne down by an unmethodical and unrestrained republication of every foreign work that will bear the charges of the compositor and paper-maker.

Calling books the most precious commodity of any country, Mathews praised efforts on both sides of the Atlantic on behalf of copyright, but rebuked the politicians who did not heed them. He particularly names Dickens, who was criticized and judged too greedy for promoting copyright. In fact, Mathews argues, it is American readers who are too greedy for stealing his works before the ink is dry. He concludes that international copyright would serve as "the only honest turnpike between the readers of two great nations." Despite the efforts of Dickens, Mathews, Irving, and others, no international copyright agreement was agreed upon until 1891.

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