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A question as to how much property there is in books

6 February 2012

From The Evolution of Copyright by Brandon Matthews, published in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, Dec., 1890:

“The only thing that divides us on the question of copyright seems to be a question as to how much property there is in books,” said James Russell Lowell two or three years ago; and he continued,

But that is a question we may be well content to waive till we have decided that there is any property at all in them.

I think that, in order that the two sides should come together, nothing more is necessary than that both should understand clearly that property, whether in books, or in land, or in anything else, is artificial; that it is purely a creature of law; and, more than that, of local and municipal law.

When we have come to an agreement of this sort, I think we will not find it difficult to come to an agreement that it will be best for us to get whatever acknowledgment of property we can, in books, to start with.”

“An author has no natural right to a property in his production,” said the late Matthew Arnold, in his acute and suggestive essay on copyright,

But then neither has he a natural right to anything whatever which he may produce or acquire. What is true is that a man has a strong instinct making him seek to possess what he has produced or acquired, to have it at his own disposal; that he finds pleasure in so having it, and finds profit. The instinct is natural and salutary, although it may be over-stimulated and indulged to excess.

One of the first objects of men, in combining themselves in society, has been to afford to the individual, in his pursuit of this instinct, the sanction and assistance of the laws, so far as may be consistent with the general advantage of the community. The author, like other people, seeks the pleasure and the profit of having at his own disposal what he produces.

Literary production, wherever it is sound, is its own exceeding great reward; but that does not destroy or diminish the author’s desire and claim to be allowed to have at his disposal, like other people, that which he produces, and to be free to turn it to account.

It happens that the thing which he produces is a thing hard for him to keep at his own disposal, easy for other people to appropriate; but then, on the other hand, he is an interesting producer giving often a great deal of pleasure by what he produces, and not provoking nemesis by any huge and immoderate profits on his production, even when it is suffered to be at his own disposal.

So society has taken him under its protection, and has sanctioned his property in his work, and enabled him to have it at his own disposal.

. . . .

The Greek dramatists, like the dramatists of to-day, relied for their pecuniary reward on the public performance of their plays.

There is a tradition that Herodotus, when an old man, read his History to an Athenian audience at the Panathenaic festival, and so delighted them that they gave him as a recompense ten talents – more than twelve thousand dollars of our money.

In Rome, where there were booksellers having scores of trained slaves to transcribe manuscripts for sale, perhaps the successful author was paid for a poem, but we find no trace of copyright or of anything like it. Horace (Ars Poetica, 345) speaks of a certain book as likely to make money for a certain firm of book-sellers.

In the other Latin poets, and even in the prose writers of Rome, we read more than one cry of suffering over the blunders of the copyists, and more than one protest in anger against the mangled manuscripts of the hurried servile transcribers.

But nowhere do we find any complaint that the author’s rights have been infringed; and this, no doubt, was because the author did not yet know that he had any wrongs. Indeed, it was only after the invention of printing that an author had an awakened sense of the injury done him in depriving him of the profit of vending his own writings; because it was only after Gutenberg had set up as a printer, that the possibility of definite profit from the sale of his works became visible to the author

. . . .

It is pleasant for us Americans to know that this first feeble acknowledgment of copyright was made by a republic. The Senate of Venice issued an order, in 1469, that John of Spira should have the exclusive right for five years to print the epistles of Cicero and of Pliny.

This privilege was plainly an exceptional exercise of the power of the sovereign state to protect the exceptional merit of a worthy citizen; it gave but a limited protection; it guarded but two books, for a brief period only, and only within the narrow limits of one commonwealth.

But, at least, it established a precedent – a precedent which has broadened down the centuries until now, four hundred years later, any book published in Venice is, by international conventions, protected from pillage for a period of at least fifty years, through a territory which includes almost every important country of continental Europe.

If John of Spira were to issue to-day his edition of Tully’s Letters, he need not fear an unauthorized reprint anywhere in the kingdom of which Venice now forms a part, or in his native land Germany, or in France, Belgium or Spain, or even in Tunis, Liberia or Hayti. The habit of asking for a special privilege from the authorities of the state wherein the book was printed spread rapidly.

In 1491 Venice gave the publicist Peter of Ravenna, and the publisher of his choice, the exclusive right to print and sell his Phoenix – the first recorded instance of a copyright awarded directly to an author

Link to the rest at JSTOR, used courtesy of JSTOR

Paragraph breaks added to enhance online readability.


2 Comments to “A question as to how much property there is in books”

  1. Given that this is a 120 year old article, I guess this counts as a ‘backgrounder’… Since I am a bit interested in history, I will be reading the whole twenty page article, but probably not in time to comment here. Thanks for posting this.

    • Pholy – I liked it because it describes the history and philosophical underpinnings of copyright in an interesting way.

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