Statute. Copyright in the American colonies was based on English law. The 1710 English copyright act, which identified literary ownership with composition, granted the sole right of publication to the author for fourteen years, with the right automatically renewed for the next fourteen years if the author were still alive. In the United States, Congress passed the first national copyright act in 1790, modeled on the 1710 act, granting fourteen-year copyrights to American citizens and residents with the same automatic fourteen-year renewal. In 1831 Congress revised the law, largely due to the efforts of Noah Webster, to extend the copy right period to twenty-eight years. The act remained limited to U.S. citizens and residents, and the time limitations suggested no inclination toward perpetual, natural copyright. During the 1820s and 1830s, when most European countries put into force international copyright acts, the United States did not follow suit.
Printers versus Authors . The lack of an international copyright benefited American printers and publishers, who were able to print popular British novels inexpensively with no return to the author. This also made publishers less inclined to risk the publication of American
works, for which royalties had to be paid. The copyright issue thus pitted the American printing industry against American authors. To the extent that an international copyright would benefit American authors and help to develop an American literature, it would work against the interests of the American publishing industry, which profited tidily from the lack of such a copyright.
Agitation. In 1836 a group of prominent British authors presented a petition favoring international copyright to the U.S. Congress. The petition was signed by Harriet Martineau, Thomas Moore, Thomas Carlyle, Maria Edgeworth, Robert Southey, and Benjamin Disraeli, among others, whose novels and stories were being mutilated or altered by the American publishers who pirated their work. These authors asked Congress to extend American copyright protection to foreign authors. Henry Clay presented this document to the Senate in February 1837, and a bill was proposed that attempted to reconcile the rights of authors and the interests of the publishing industry by making protection of foreign authors dependent on their work’s manufacture in the United States. Even with the manufacturing clause the bill did not pass.
Dickens. The 1840s saw more activity on behalf of international copyright, especially after Charles Dickens’s visit to the United States in 1842. Unfortunately, Dickens’s timing was not good as the United States was in the depths of an economic depression. Dickens’s calls for copyright protection also appeared self-interested since his work was popular in the United States, and Dickens would clearly have benefited financially from a copyright law that would have prevented American publishers from printing his works without paying him. In 1842 another petition, organized by Frederick Saunders and signed by Washington Irving and twenty-four other leading New York writers, was presented to Congress, but without effect. In 1843 a group of American authors formed the American Copyright Club, with poet William Cullen Bryant as its president. The American Copyright Club immediately put forth “An Address to the People of the United States of Behalf of the American Copyright Club” with a comprehensive list of members. In 1844 the club hired Rufus Griswold, the best-known American anthologist of his time, to lobby Congress for copyright reform. Another congressional committee was formed, but no significant action was taken.
Publishing Industry. By 1844 another barrier to international copyright had arisen. In the 1820s American publishers had began to make arrangements with their British counterparts (or with British authors directly) to have advance sheets of literary works sent to the United States. American publishers developed an implicit understanding among themselves that the first company to get a copy of a foreign work “owned” that work. Further, certain authors were understood to be owned by certain publishers. Violations of this courtesy of trade arrangement could result in retaliation in kind, as when Boston publishers Munroe and Francis disregarded Harpers’s claim to Thomas Moore’s Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (1830–1831) and reprinted it in 1833. Harpers promptly struck at the other firm’s most valuable work by compressing a twenty-volume set of Edgeworth’s novels into ten volumes and selling them for $7.50, less than half of Munroe and Francis’s price. Although these courtesy-of-trade arrangements began to unravel during the economic downturn that followed the Panic of 1837, the return to prosperity in the mid 1840s allowed this unofficial regulation of the publishing trade to start up again, removing any incentive for the large publishing companies that benefited from the arrangement to support an international copyright.
Lack of Resolution. The issue of international copyright remained unresolved through the first half of the nineteenth century. The conflict surrounding Dickens’s intervention in the American copyright issue illustrated, however, some important tensions in American (and British) literary culture. By favoring an American international copyright law, Dickens appeared to expect money for his work, for which he was jeered at by some members of the press. These attacks raised a critical issue faced by the would-be professional author: did he write for the love of writing or for money? Did writing for money cheapen either the author or the work? Should American writers produce literature for the benefit of the nation or for their own financial gain? Were the two goals incompatible? With the copyright issue unresolved, these issues would remain the subject of debate for many years.
James J. Barnes, Authors, Publishers, and Politicians: The Quest for an Anglo-American Copyright Agreement, 1815–1854 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974);
Aubert J. Clark, The Movement for International Copyright in Nineteenth Century America (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1960).