How Writers Coped Without Copyright

Intellectual property and piracy managed to co-exist in 19th-century America.


Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain, by Robert Spoo, Oxford University Press, 355 pages, $35

What would happen if authors and publishers could not count on copyright to protect them from piracy? History hints at the answer. From the founding of the United States until well into the 20th century, domestic copyright laws generally denied foreign authors any form of legal redress. Yet as the legal scholar Robert Spoo explains in Without Copyrights, writers from other lands developed alternative strategies to recoup the costs of writing, producing, and marketing their works.

It wasn't simple, and it wasn't always pretty, but this informal system kept the American public well supplied with global literature. In Spoo's able recounting, moreover, it gave rise to some entertaining literary brawls and criminal obscenity.

Until the Chace Act was passed in 1891, only citizens and residents of the U.S. could qualify for American copyrights. Even after that, for another 60 years or so, domestic laws continued to deny copyrights to non-American authors who first manufactured or published their works abroad, or who failed to satisfy the stringent statutory formalities of U.S. copyright law. Few foreign authors bothered trying to run that legal gantlet; many who tried, failed. Through these openly protectionist provisions, U.S. copyright law subsidized domestic publishers, typesetters, printers, binders, and readers, while enriching the public domain with the works of foreign authors.

Spoo provides a considerable service simply by recreating that lost legal world, which cannot fail to seem bizarrely xenophobic to anyone familiar with how the law works now. (For the most part, copyrights today automatically apply across national boundaries.) But that merely sets the stage for Spoo's main task: describing how authors and publishers adapted to a land without copyright.

Especially prior to the Chace Act, publishers relied on voluntary and extralegal (but nonetheless quite effective) norms developed under the name of "trade courtesy," a practice in which many of the larger U.S. publishing houses acted as if foreign authors enjoyed domestic copyrights. Reputable publishers would respect any peer's claim-typically made via advertisement in a trade journal -to have purchased the advance sheets of a new book from its overseas publisher or to have reached a "first publication" agreement with the author.

Punishments for breaching trade courtesy included verbal jousting and public shaming (usually through missives in the same trade journals that carried first-publication claims), predatory pricing (by which the rightful publisher would sell at a loss to deny its counterpart any profits), and retaliation (by poaching on the foreign titles claimed by the offending publisher). Notably absent from this list of sanctions: lawsuits.

Trade courtesy developed into a coherent and elaborate system of informal norms, giving U.S. publishers the confidence to risk printing, marketing, and distributing foreign works unprotected by copyrights. It also worked to the advantage of many foreign authors, who won payments from U.S. publishers and new readers.

The courtesy tradition did not afford complete control over unauthorized reproductions, of course; not even copyright can promise that. Rogue publishers flouted the rules and flooded the market with shoddy editions of especially popular works. Although denigrated as pirates by their more respectable counterparts, the cheap reprinters proclaimed themselves as champions of the reading public against a conspiracy in restraint of trade. Through it all, foreign authors kept writing, domestic publishers kept printing, and the American public kept reading.

Spoo does an able job of describing trade courtesy, but his real interest lies elsewhere. The practice declined in the late 1800s due not only to the Chace Act but to the rise of antitrust laws and of literary agents-who, to the chagrin of domestic publishers, helped foreign authors navigate the hazards of U.S. law. Although the informal practices of trade courtesy lived on in diluted form, federal and state laws had a larger impact on foreign modernist authors, such as James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and their U.S. publishers.

The Chace Act finally allowed foreign authors to enjoy U.S. copyrights, but anti-obscenity laws made it especially risky for avant-garde authors to do so. To qualify for domestic copyright protection, foreign authors had to carefully arrange to have their works published at least as early in the United States as abroad and to officially register their works with the U.S. Copyright Office. But by so involving themselves in the local publication of their works, foreign authors and their authorized publishers rendered themselves susceptible to prosecution if their works were held to be obscene under U.S. law. That proved all too likely for modernists, who relished flouting convention.

Spoo spends considerable time laying out the details of this legal conundrum, an exercise that affords the reader many a good tale of elaborate subterfuge, high-profile litigation, and racy texts. Few other histories offer so detailed an account of how law and culture interact. Far from a dry legal scholar, Spoo clearly knows and loves modernist literature, and he convincingly argues that little-known quirks of U.S. law had a powerful impact on how the world came to receive such canonical novels as James Joyce's Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Spoo's enthusiasm sometimes transports him beyond the patience of lay readers. Only hardcore fans of the poet Ezra Pound will find his somewhat puerile musings on the ideal form of copyright law interesting. Yet we must allow a specialist like Spoo such liberties. It seems a small price to pay for so complete an account of an unjustly neglected corner of history.

Spoo cannot fully answer the question of what would happen if writers and publishers could not count on copyright to protect them from piracy. After all, the foreign authors he discusses faced the denial of their copyright claims only in the U.S.; in their home countries, they enjoyed all the usual privileges of intellectual property law. There they and their local publishers could risk putting their works before the public without undue worry that pirates would step in to reap the benefits of their labors.

Without Copyrights cannot tell us what would happen if the title of the book became a global reality. But it does demonstrate that even with a partial removal of intellectual property laws, authors, publishers, and readers can still find mutual benefit while avoiding certain entanglements with government. Copyright's past offers instructive lessons for those who would like to improve copyright's future.

NEXT: NSA Settles Lawsuit Over's Satirical Merchandise

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Even as a content producer, I find our copyright system absurd.

    What’s the point of life plus seventy? And if it exists, why base it on the longevity of the creator at all? Originally it was from date of publication – a reasonable and relatively simple standard. But these days when you get two contemporaries where one keels over early and the other lives to push a hundred, you end up with a multi-decade gap in the public domain date of two works printed in the same year.

    The threat of losing the income is a good motivator to create new works, and as such short or no copyrights are more condusive to the expressed purpose of the laws. And remember – the bulk of the western canon of literature was created in times of little or not protection at all. In order to print Shakespeare’s folios, his actors had to get together after his death and perform their parts in sequence with someone recording the lines because no one was given a complete copy of any of the scripts (to prevent it from being sold).

    1. Totally agree with the decision. The decision allows you to search text as if it was the card catalog. you then do not get to read the book as you are only exposed to the most relevant page. But you at least have identified a book you might want to purchase. Good for the searcher , Google, and the authors I think. BTW, with authors now getting almost unlimited copyright (99 years), it is copyright that reforming, not google in this case. When copyrights approach infinity then fair use begins to disappear and cultural innovation declines.

      For example:
      Now I can scan every text book from college, and all my friends, nieces, nephews and acquaintance’s very expensive textbooks and LEGALLY post them online for all college students everywhere to access this valuable knowledge, just like Google! No more dusty libraries for us, no sir! If the publishers want to contact me and tell me to remove them, hey, I’ll be happy to – sorry about the ones already shared. I can’t be expected to go get them back, right?

  2. The problem with copyright isn’t that it exists, but that it is too long. Twenty years of monopoly control is plenty of encouragement for an author to do his or her thing. And if you can’t come up with something else within that time period, then maybe you should find another field of work.

  3. U.S. copyright law subsidized domestic publishers

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.