An Olive Branch from America

The Nineteenth Century (November 1887)

II. From Professor Huxley

4 Marlborough Place, N.W.

[620] I find it Mr. Pearsall Smith's interesting paper two chief matters for consideration: the one is a statement of the moral principles by which the Transatlantic English-speaking people propose to govern themselves in dealing with the property of British authors; and the other is a plan for securing to the said British authors such a price for the use of their property as is compatible with the moral principles in question. The principles are very easily gathered from Mr. Pearsall Smith's candid exposition of them. Transatlantic readers, it appears, by no means go so far as to deny that book is the property of its author; and they are evidently quite shocked at the notion that, when they possess themselves of a pirated edition, they may be placing themselves in the position of receivers of stolen goods. Their conscience has been stirred to its depths by the suspicion that such may be the case, and will give them no peace until they are satisfied that the man whose genius has charmed away their sorrows or opened up new vistas for their intellect has not been left to starve on mere praise. All they ask (and they seem to think the request a grace) is that they themselves shall be the assessors of the pecuniary value of their obligations. 'Our souls require moral and intellectual elevation; we are accustomed to get these elevators cheaply, and we mean to go on getting them cheaply. We shall be happy to consider any arrangement for rewarding the makers of the elevators consistently with that declaration; but they had better recollect that we are masters of the situation and that we shall appropriate our spiritual nourishment without payment, if we cannot get it at our own price."

In England we still retain so much of the ingrained conservatism of the decaying civilisations of Europe that, if a starving man goes into a baker's shop and carries off a sixpenny loaf, leaving only two-pence in its place, the poor wretch is hailed before the nearest magistrate and sent to prison for a thief. It would be no good whatever for him to plead that his bodily frame absolutely required to be elevated and kept erect by regular installments of bread; that he had been accustomed all his life to get a big loaf for twopence; and that, in his judgment, the baker got quite enough profit out of the two-pence–to prison he would go. But see the difference. The starveling is not (at any rate yet) master of the situation, and the baker (plus the magistrate) is. However, we are altering all these things rapidly. It has become an axiom among a large and influential class of our politicians that a want constitutes a good claim for that which you want, but which other people happen to possess. The 'earth hunger' of the many has established itself as an excellent plea for the [621] spoilation of the landowning few; leaseholders are already trying the effect of 'house hunger' on house-owners; and the happy time seems approaching when the consumer, and not the producer, will fix the price of all things desirable. The course of action by which, according to Mr. Pearsall Smith, Transatlantic readers propose to deal with British authors is but another anticipation of that social millennium when the 'Have-nots,' whether they lack land, or house, or money, or capacity, or morals, will have parted among themselves all the belongings of the 'Haves'–save the two last mentioned.

The proposed plan for 'protected copyright with free trade competition' has one merit. It recognises the right of property of an author in his work. It is a frank confession that piracy is theft. But, as a practical measure, I cannot say I feel any confidence in its working. The author is to provide stamps for each copy of his work, and anybody who chooses to publish it is to obtain the number of stamps required for his edition, on paying ten per cent of the publishing price to the author or his representative. It appears to me that there are serious–not to say fatal–objections to this project from the point of view both of the author and of the publisher.

From that of the author, because, unless the stamps are executed with the care and cost of a bank-note, they may be counterfeited with the most tempting eagerness. Suppose that I had the good fortune to be the author of a popular novel, and that I found that some scamp of a bookseller was issuing an edition with forged stamps at Chicago, and another playing the same game at Toronto. Unless I happened to have a few thousands of which I desired to make ducks and drakes, is it conceivable that I should be so foolish as to take action against my defrauders in the civil courts of these two cities, when, in all probability, the judge would have a copy of the pirated edition in his pocket, while bar and jury were equally well provided? How shall Angelo condemn Claudio without many qualms? Suppose I succeeded and obtained the award of five times the retail price of the cheap edition–which is the maximum fine proposed–to what extent would that recoup me for law expenses, worry, and loss of time? Legal administration is comparatively cheap and swift in Scotland; but an eminent Scotch judge once told me that if he were riding along Leith Walk and somebody preferred a claim his horse and took it away, he should think it, on the whole, better to put up with the loss of the horse than to go to law with the spoliator. Certainly it would be better for the English author to sell all he had and give it to the poor than to undertake a copyright process in the United States or Canada in the face of the existing feeling that 'our people' have a right to 'nourish themselves and their children,' as Sir C. Trevelyan put it, on cheap books. The former process, at any rate, would not leave him in debt.

And now as to the position of the publisher under the proposed [622] arrangement. My experience of publishers both in England and America has been such as to lead me to differ somewhat from the estimate which many of my brethren seem to form of them. So far as my observation has gone, they have as much claim to the possession of souls as other people; and I have not been able to convince myself that the portion of inherited depravity in the average publisher is greater than that implanted in the average author. I have frequently asked myself whether, for any possible benefit which my publishers get out of my books, I would, or could, submit to the worry, loss of time, and pecuniary risk of bringing them out on my own account; and I have had no difficulty in answering this question in the negative. But there are publishers and publishers, and there are various fashions of bringing out books.

As our Transatlantic readers admit that an author has some right of property in his work, I am a little perplexed to understand why they deny his right to appoint the agent1 on to whose shoulders he desires to throw all the burden and risk of giving that work a practical existence; and to decide, in accordance with him, the form of their joint produce and the remuneration they may ask for it. The farmer, the miller, and the baker decide the price at which they can afford that the loaf which they have jointly produced shall be sold. In revolutionary times, starving mobs, desiring to have the sixpenny loaf for twopence, call the baker a monopolist, and proceed to hang him a la lanterne . The Transatlantic people, impelled, as it appears, by their spiritual cravings after the intellectual and moral elevation imparted by the works of English authors, call the publisher, who stands in the same relation to the author as the baker to the farmer, a 'monopolist.' Heaven forbid that I should suggest that my excellent friends, the Messrs. Appleton, may stand in danger now or hereafter of the lanterne . Not at all! The sixpenny loaf can be got not merely for twopence, but for nothing, without any such violence, by simply continuing the present practice of piracy, checked only by the underselling power of the strong houses.

Grant, however, that the appointment by the man who possesses a property of an agent to administer that property, according to such terms as they may mutually agree to, is an offensive act of monopoly on the part of the owner–what will be the practical working of the scheme which it is proposed to substitute for this old-world expression of rights of ownership?

I suppose myself an American or Canadian publisher. I hear that the celebrated author A. B. is about to produce a work which is certain to be greatly in demand on my side of the Atlantic. As things are, if I bring out an edition of ten thousand, I, in the [623] first place, risk the whole prime cost of that edition on the accuracy of my judgment of the public taste. To those who have had experience of the uncertainty of such judgments this will probably seem enough. But the new scheme proposes that I shall add to this risk the deposit, with the author or his representatives, of a sum equal to a thousand times the selling price of a single copy, with the prospect of a possible lawsuit against a man who is usually not rich, an indefinite time afterwards, to get back the value of stamps for unsold copies in case I have made a mistake. And, for all this additional trouble, risk, and tying up of capital, I get absolutely nothing. It is open to my rival in the next street to write for the necessary stamps and undersell me whenever he pleases. For the publisher, therefore, the state of things would remain exactly as it is now–a condition of internecine warfare, in which only those houses can afford to pay copyright who are wealthy enough to break down any one who trenches on their ground. The relation of authors to publishers in America at present is exactly that of the travelling merchants to the barons of the middle ages. Put yourself in the hands of any one of them who was strong enough, and he protected you against all the rest; otherwise you were every man's prey. I do not see how the projected scheme will alter this state of things. It is further to be considered that the new proposal leaves the author absolutely at the mercy of anybody who applies for stamps. The publisher may turn out an ill-printed, ill-corrected version (perhaps improved and amended to suit the taste of the Transatlantic people), and the author has no remedy.

In the case of illustrated works the wrong may be still more gross. I speak with some knowledge of the cost and trouble of preparing illustrated scientific books. The author may spend months or years in dissecting and preparing the requisite objects and in making or superintending the execution, in the first place, of drawings from them, and, in the second place, of the engravings made from these drawings. It rarely happens that he obtains more than the most bare and scanty remuneration for the labour thus spent, which often is as great as that of writing his book. The work being published in England, an American publisher writes for stamps for an edition, say a third or a fourth of the price per copy of the English one. It is perfectly easy for him to do so; the paper and the mere type-setting after a printed book do not come to much, and the illustrations, which have cost the producer so much trouble, can be reproduced at a fraction of the cost of the originals. If they are coarse and clumsy, with the references half wrong, what matter? The discredit is put down to the author's account.

In conclusion, I am of opinion that this proposal for 'protected copyright with free-trade competition' is false in principle, and, so far as English authors and Transatlantic publishers are concerned, would [624] be futile in practice. If adopted, it will merely come to the issue of letters of marque to people who are now frankly pirates. The French valet said to the master who offered him so much a year if he would leave off the pickings and stealings, 'Monsieur, je préfère de vous voler.' I may paraphrase the candid valet's confession and declare that if I am to be robbed I prefer to be robbed openly.

If the Transatlantic reader admits, as he professes to do, that an English author has rights of property in the book which he has written, he seems to me bound further to admit that the author may at least appoint an agent in the reader's own country with the exclusive right to make and sell the book under such conditions as that agent, knowing the wants and conditions of the community, may think prudent and reasonable. If my Transatlantic friend calls that proposal 'undisguised monopoly,' I all any which offers less to the author more or less disguised piracy.

1 I see no reason for demurring to the requirement that the agent should be a native of the country in which the sale is to take place, if, as is asserted, there are strong practical grounds of objection to any other arrangement.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University