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Walt Whitman Championed Democracy and Fought for Copyright

18 November 2018

From The Illusion of More:

“Publishers move without concert, harmony, or agreement. There is no law to regulate their rights, and they have none (which are respected) by courtesy.  They print the same book, and the spirit of competition is such as to destroy all correctness, all taste, and all chance of profit.  The result is, that the author gets nothing, the publisher is subjected to losses, and the public are never satisfied.  An international copyright law would remove these evils.”

 — Nahum Capen, 1844 —

This excerpt from a Memorial written by a notable Boston author, editor, and publisher fairly well sums up the state of book publishing—and most creative work—in the embryonic America of the mid-19th century. It is not mere coincidence that the evolution of an American artistic voice parallels the development of U.S. copyright law; and the passage of an international copyright statute in 1891 was a key milestone—culturally, economically, creatively, and politically—in the nation’s progress toward global maturity.  One important advocate of that law also happened to be one of the nation’s first truly domestic creative voices—the poet Walt Whitman, who viewed the adoption of international copyright as a matter of democratic principle even more than a matter of economic purpose.

Creativity today is entirely democratic.  We understand that works of great genius and value might come from anywhere.  But many of America’s most influential authors and thinkers, during the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, believed that literature should remain tethered to classical, elitist traditions.  Thus, while American copyright law evolved throughout the 19th century, charting a course distinct from the antecedents of English common law, a new American creative voice was emerging at the same time.  Indeed, there was a conscious, creative/political movement that may be roughly bracketed between an 1837 speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the literary apotheosis expressed in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1855.

It was August 31, 1837, when Emerson spoke to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard University in which he called upon young, domestic authors to write the narrative of the new nation rather than to continue to “feed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.”  Emerson’s address helped galvanize a broad, cultural shift that was just percolating among the first post-Revolution, literary figures in the nation, and among these was Whitman, who published his first short stories in a new periodical founded on the principles of this movement—the United States Magazine and Democratic Review.

Link to the rest a The Illusion of More

Copyright/Intellectual Property

2 Comments to “Walt Whitman Championed Democracy and Fought for Copyright”

  1. It was an ugly situation back then. America and England didn’t respect any form of copyright. That meant that English writers were paid nothing for American reprints, and vice versa. It also meant that it was cheaper for American publishers to publish English works for nothing than pay American authors which meant fewer Americans were published, less income was generated for those who were published, and the American literary world devalued American works, particularly those with an American slant. One of the main reasons Charles Dickens had his American tour was to protest the mass theft of his works in the American market.

  2. Property rights do tend to stimulate production and efficiency.

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