Dickens vs. America

The literature copyfight has been going on a long time. My hero Charles Dickens was intimately involved. Now here are some copyright-related highlights from Dickens vs. America, an essay by Matthew Pearl, author of the novel The Last Dickens. The essay appeared in More Intelligent Life:

In the 19th century publishing battles raged between Britain and the United States. A loophole in American copyright law enabled publishers to reprint British books at will. Until 1891, the intellectual property of non-citizens was up for grabs. Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and other popular British writers lost untold amounts of income as American publishers profited. American writers, too, were commercial losers at home, as a book of poetry by Longfellow or Poe selling for one dollar had to compete with a 25 cent novel by Dickens or Thackeray.

It was an intellectual-property war every bit as fierce as today’s DVD black market in China. American publishers would send their agents to roam the wharves in New York, Philadelphia and Boston to intercept popular manuscripts coming in by ship. Across the Atlantic, English customs officials would search passenger ships coming from the States and confiscate pirated British books as contraband.

Dickens found himself in an awkward spot, torn between his financial interests and his fame. Though he did not earn royalties from his American sales, the inexpensive prices helped circulate his books and serials more widely, increasing his popularity.


When Dickens travelled to America for the first time in 1841, he crowed in a subsequent letter that “there never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds.” He relished this adulation, which exceeded what he enjoyed back home. He also felt a natural kinship with America’s ideals of equality, democracy and liberalism. His own rags-to-riches story was embraced by the country’s public and press.

Still, he used his first visit to deliver speeches calling for an international copyright. Dickens expected right-thinking Americans to join him in the fight. But the country was going through an economic crunch, making even high-minded demands for more money unappealing. His tub-thumping especially irked American newspapers, which relied on free British content to fill their pages….

Dickens understood that there would be no international copyright in his lifetime. In 1867 he announced that Fields, Osgood & Co, a Boston publisher sponsoring his tour, would be his authorised American publisher for his forthcoming novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Though this could not prevent pirated editions, he made a moral plea to readers to purchase the official version.

Dubbed the Dickens Controversy, this unprecedented arrangement sparked fierce debate among American publishers, who were caught off-guard by an author’s ability to sway public opinion. Some of the most notorious pirating firms felt forced to re-evaluate their positions on copyright.

I don’t think we can draw an exact analogy to today’s situation and the Internet, but I think this much is clear: as long as there as profit to be made by pirating, there will be profiteering. Building more walls won’t solve the problem. Pirates will simply scale them, laughing. And unless you’ve written, say, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol (to say nothing of Little Dorrit), you probably won’t command the adulation of an Emperor on your book tour.

So should today’s writers forget about quitting their day jobs? Is the future Smashwords and like services? Maybe letting readers set the price? Utilize Creative Commons? Or keep plugging away in “traditional” publishing, hoping for that break-through book deal?

(This is assuming that you’ve written a Very Good Book to begin with.)

Note: The photo by George Herbert Watkins is via Wikipedia.

This post also appeared at Teleread.

One thought on “Dickens vs. America

  1. OneCrazyMama

    Authors and artists are always wise to keep their day job :) That is, unless they are anorexic and don’t mind the “starving” epithet so much. Besides, work gets you out in the world and provides material for more art. It is a win-win situation.

    Writing is about creating beauty, as you have mentioned. For me, it is also a tiny act of defiance. Writing is an enjoyable moment of insanity in which I try to raise my voice above the din, cast off the knowledge of my place as one bit of ephemera among a see of the same. It is a moment to proclaim loudly that once I was here; once I had an opinion.

    Mental graffiti.

    If one head nods in recognition, I’d consider it a job well done. Expecting too much more than that is crazier than I could ever hope to be.

    And I’m really, in real life, pretty nucking futts.

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