December 8, 2011

Literary property will be as sacred as whiskey

During a trip to Canada, admirers in Montreal threw a banquet for Mark Twain on December 8, 1881. He took the opportunity to lash out against Canadian publishers pirating the works of authors in the United States.

I did not come to Canada to commit crime — this time — but to prevent it. I came here to place myself under the protection of the Canadian law and secure a copyright... This is rather a cumbersome way to fence and fortify one's property against the literary buccaneer, it is true; still, if it is effective, it is a great advantage upon past conditions, and one to be correspondingly welcome.

The real reason for Twain's trip, as he alludes to here, is to secure Canadian copyright for his book The Prince and the Pauper. One Canadian publisher alone, Belford Brothers, published some twenty editions of Twain's works, without paying royalties, and usually listing a cover price cheaper than authorized editions. Worse still, they were distributing not only in Canada but in the United States as well, making them a major competition. When he complained, the publisher told him "the law allows us to pirate them."

At least one biographer of "Samuel Clemens" notes that he took the pseudonym "Mark Twain" as a sort of trademark symbol that had better protection than copyright. But circumventing law was not the real issue. Piracy was a moral concern, and one in which governments should become involved.In his speech in Montreal, Twain tried to make his point using his characteristic humor:

It makes one hope and believe that a day will come when, in the eye of the law, literary property will be as sacred as whiskey, or any other of the necessaries of life. In this age of ours, if you steal another man's label to advertise your own brand of whiskey with, you will be heavily fined and otherwise punished for violating that trademark; if you steal the whiskey without the trademark, you go to jail; but if you could prove that the whiskey was literature, you can steal them both, and the law wouldn't say a word. It grieves me to think how far more profound and reverent a respect the law would have for literature if a body could only get drunk on it.

*Much of the information for this post comes from Writing 'Huck Finn': Mark Twain's Creative Process (1992) by Victor A. Doyno.

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