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Copy Wrong

Copy Wrong

Internet Piracy and Dickens and Melville 

“Yes, I read the illegal translation,” a Czech Internet correspondent known as “Hustey” wrote last summer, when the next, eagerly awaited book in J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series—Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix—first appeared in bookstores. Hustey is part of a growing, worldwide fraternity of Internet users who seem to have come to the conclusion that theft is morally defensible, so long as it only involves intellectual property.

One J.C., a 36-year-old man from Kansas City, not only admitted his theft but threw in a review: “I thought it was a little slow until the second half, then it got much better”—a bit of chutzpah akin to having someone steal your car and then post a public notice complaining about its pickup.

Electronic theft has largely revolved around the downloading of popular music. Recently, though, it has expanded to books. “This shows that if authors and publishers choose not to make books available legally, people are going to go out and steal them,” claims Mike Seagroves, director of business development of Palm Digital Media, the largest commercial distributor of e-books. Palm Digital Media apparently believes that Rowling is asking for too much money to have her e-book distributed legally. And everyone knows that the proper reaction to something’s being overpriced is to go steal it.

Some will no doubt point out that Rowling has already made a fortune from previous book sales. True enough. But Rowling was a broke, struggling single mother when she invented Harry Potter, thereby creating a commodity that has given joy to millions of children and adults. She has even made it available to many readers for free—at those marvelous institutions known as public libraries. By what right, then, should she be deprived of any of the money legally due her?

This is not the first time that a determined English writer who worked their way up from nothing to become the most popular writer in the world has had to fight the publishing pirates. A century and a half ago Charles Dickens faced the same battle, though back then the main culprits were not e-wizards but Americans.

The love affair between Dickens and America started early. Citizens of New York and Boston swarmed the docksides to get the latest installments of The Old Curiosity Shop, and Dickens, in turn, would claim, once he got to the United States for the first time, in 1842, that he had “dreamed by day and night, for years, of setting foot upon this shore.”

At first, everything on his initial American tour went splendidly. At a spectacular banquet in Boston he made a graceful speech in which he praised leading American writers as being “as familiar to our [British] lips as household words.” He went on to express the “hope the time is not far distant when they, in America, will receive of right some substantial profit and return in England from their labours; and when we, in England, shall receive some substantial profit and return in America from ours,” though he assured his audience, “Pray do not misunderstand me… . I would rather have the affectionate regard of my fellow men than I would have heaps and mines of gold.”

The speech was received with what those in attendance described as wild, “tumultuous” applause. Yet the next day’s newspapers were full of articles accusing him of bad taste, and he was charged with having “awakened huge dissonance where all else was triumphant unison.” Dickens, it seemed, had touched on an issue close to the papers’ mercenary hearts.

In 1842 there was still no international copyright law, a condition that was stunting American letters and depriving authors on both sides of the Atlantic of a living. Britain was willing to recognize the copyright of foreign writers—but only if their countries reciprocated.

This American publishers adamantly refused to do. Instead, they competed in bribing English pressmen to get early sheets of British books. The sheets were rushed by boat over to the United States, where the jolly pirates churned out cheap editions in a matter of hours.

But it was not only British authors they were robbing. Few publishers were willing to pay American authors for books when they could purloin better-known British ones for free. Herman Melville was hurt by the lack of an international copyright, and such eminent American authors as Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne had to pay publishers an advance, rather than vice versa, in order to have their books produced. The early giants of American literature had to scramble for work at customhouses and in other government jobs, and Edgar Allan Poe, according to his biographer Sidney P. Moss, had to raise advance money for one collection of poems by soliciting 75 cents a head from his fellow West Point classmates, to whom he then dedicated the book.

Dickens was never forced into quite such desperate straits, but neither was he so indifferent to “heaps and mines of gold” as he made out in Boston. He had, after all, spent part of his childhood in a debtors’ prison, and as the most popular writer in the world, “of all men living I am the greatest loser,” he pointed out. And at a speech in Hartford, Connecticut, he again pressed the issue.

In fact, his audiences, and American writers, continued to support him enthusiastically. But the Hartford Times bluntly informed him, “It happens that we want no advice on the subject and it will be better for Mr. Dickens if he refrains from introducing the subject hereafter.” Dickens’s biographer Edgar Johnson writes: “Other newspapers asserted that he was no gentleman, that he was a mercenary scoundrel, that he was abusing the hospitality of the United States… . Anonymous letters echoed all these attacks in every key of scurrility.”

Far from being chastised, American book publishers called on Congress to impose a tariff on foreign books and made the remarkable claim that to let English writers retain control over their own works would make it impossible “for American editors to alter and adapt them to American taste.” Even Dickens began to realize that this was a fight he couldn’t win, and in private he sarcastically mimicked his hosts: “The Americans read him; the free, enlightened, independent Americans; and what more would he have? … As to telling them they will have no literature of their own, the universal answer (out of Boston) is, ‘We don’t want one. Why should we pay for one when we can get it for nothing.’”

The whole fight seemed to jaundice how Dickens viewed the raw young nation, and many Americans were stung by his American Notes, an account of his journey published a few months after his return to England. James Bennett’s New York Herald pilloried the book as the product of “that famous penny-a-liner” with “the most coarse, vulgar, impudent, and superficial” mind. This set new standards in gall, inasmuch as the Herald had been an active pirate of American Notes. Bennett’s pressmen sold 50,000 copies of the book in two days’ time, without so much as a dime going to that famous penny-a-liner.

Yet time, and Americans’ unquenchable thirst for Dickens’s work, would heal all these wounds. Twenty-five years later he returned to these shores—and was treated to another rapturous reception. And by then he had found a way to reap at least some reward for his work: A series of hundreds of lectures and readings netted him around $1.2 million in today’s money from his ecstatic U.S. fans.

Many of his American brethren were not so fortunate. Not until 1891 did the United States finally agree to stop sanctioning literary piracy, and by then Poe had long since tumbled into alcoholism and fatal despair, and Melville too was gone. Surely in the age of the Internet we can come up with some arrangement that will compensate writers for their work. For instance, most of the data about the theft of Harry Potter I took from a New York Times article, by Amy Harmon, that I found online—and for which I paid $2.95. Fair enough?

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