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Thirty Years of International Copyright

The Chace Act of 1891 gave copyright to non-U.S. works in return for international copyright protections for American authors. On the law’s 30th anniversray, Brander Matthews wrote that he considered the law a smashing success.

It remains the least adequate [such law] now in force of any of the civilized nations; but, improvable as it may be, it marked a long stride in advance and it did what it was meant to do; it put an end to the despoiling of the foreign writer in the United States and of the American writer in foreign countries. In fact, it has accomplished its purpose so completely that the present generation of readers has no knowledge of the conditions which it terminated.

The law, nicknamed after Sen. Jonathan Chace (R-RI) and which had been lobbied by the likes of Mark Twain and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, originally granted copyright to Great Britain and its colonies, plus France, Belgium and Switzerland. More than 10 other countries were added by 1921, including Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, the German Empire, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Spain.

Today the U.S. has reciprocal copyright agreements in place with most, though not all, other countries. Here’s a complete list from the U.S. Copyright Office: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38a.pdf

Prior to 1891, though, the situation was quite different, as Matthews explained.

Before July 1, 1891, a book published in London or Paris could be reprinted by anybody or by any number of bodies in New York without the permission of the British or French author and without any payment to him. The novels of Scott and Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot, Hugo and Dumas, the essays of Macaulay and Taine, the scientific writings of Spencer and Huxley and Tyndall, the poems of Tennyson and Browning, passed out of the control of their authors as soon as they were put on sale in Europe.

It gets worse.

And the novels and lyrics of American writers were almost — although not quite — as unprotected in England. Hundreds of thousands of copies of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were sold in Great Britain, for which Mrs. Stowe did not receive a penny. Thousands of copies of Longfellow’s poems were issued by English publishers; and I heard Lowell say once that all the reward Longfellow had reaped from them was the gift of a game pie, sent to him across the Atlantic by a kind-hearted and appreciative London published.

The effects of the law were immediate. According to The Development of the International Book Trade, 1870-1895:
Tangled Networks by Alison Rukavina, “Before 1891, 70 percent of the books published in the United States were of foreign origin; after 1891, the figure was reversed, and 70 percent were by native authors.”

 

Thirty Years of International Copyright (PDF)

Published: Sunday, June 26, 1921

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Written by Jesse

June 27th, 2021 at 12:58 pm

Posted in Books,History,Politics

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