Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

Copyright Notice: We don't think much of copyright, so you can do what you want with the content on this blog. Of course we are hungry for publicity, so we would be pleased if you avoided plagiarism and gave us credit for what we have written. We encourage you not to impose copyright restrictions on your "derivative" works, but we won't try to stop you. For the legally or statist minded, you can consider yourself subject to a Creative Commons Attribution License.


Early copyright in the US

Those who have read our book may be aware of the story of 19th Century copyright in the US - in which English authors could not copyright their works in the U.S. We cite Arnold Plant, who quotes a commission report suggesting that English authors never-the-less got paid by American publishers. Meera Nair has the quotation from the original

it is worth while for [American publishers] to rival each other abroad in their offers for early sheets of important works. We are assured that there are cases in which authors reap substantial results from these arrangements, and instances are even known in which an English author's returns from the United States exceed the profits of his British sale

Royal Commission on Laws and Regulations relating to Home, Colonial and Foreign Copyrights. Report, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode. 1878) Report, page xxxvii. para. 242.


On the other hand, both Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe complained bitterly about copies of their books in the United States and England for which they never received a nickel. Dickens was so distressed by the rampant copying of his books that he had Nicholas Nickleby speaking with a man who had copied more than two hundred books almost as fast as they had been released...in some cases FASTER than they had been released.

Indeed, Dickens complained because American publishers were not paying any royalties for imported manuscripts. When Dickens visited the U.S., he went on speaking tours where he denounced the theft of copyright by American publishers, and, along with Edgar Allan Poe advocated an international copyright. At the time it made the American people quite upset with Dickens, who was generally favored by the American public. However, more objective observers noted that Dickens was at least as harshly critical of England, and the American public should have expected no less of Dickens.

English authors did sometime provide advance sheets to American publishers for "small fees," but only because that was the most they could get. Dickens never did provide advance sheets as his protest against what he considered theft of his books.

Although the works of Dickens and Poe were produced by "pirate publishers," who didn't pay royalties to either author, they both received royalties from publishers who did adhere to copyright on both sides of the pond. I can't find the cite right now, but there is a great quote in a bio of Dickens by one of his publishers, Thomas Harper of Harper & Sons, who wrote a letter to Dickens basically asking him to stop prevaricating about his royalty situation. Dickens was in fact paid royalties by three American publishers for his books they published, including Harper & Sons.

As Michelle Boldrin and David K. Levine pointed out in their book (and others did before them), the success of American book "pirates" increased the market for books in the U.S., while helping to spread literacy. As a result, Dickens and Poe (as well as other authors) probably earned more than they would have if "piracy" had not existed.


I look forward to reading your references.

Certainly Dickens comments against rampant piracy in the U.S. bordered on vitriolic, and he used his tours in the U.S. to preach against piracy, much to the chagrin of his audience, as is extremely well documented.

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it's from the point of view of the state

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Try as I might, I am unable to find any reference that shows that Dickens earned anything from the sale of cheap versions of his book in the U.S. Indeed, Dickens vowed to go after copyright infringers in Britain after returning from his tour of the United States. As the link below shows, infringers were copying "A Christmas Carol" within two weeks after he published it, with a different title and selling for a penny a piece.

If you have alternate information about how much more money Dickens made on copies being distributed for a penny a piece, I would enjoy reading them.


Try as I might, I am unable to find any reference that shows that Dickens earned anything from the sale of cheap versions of his book in the U.S. Indeed, Dickens vowed to go after copyright infringers in Britain after returning from his tour of the United States. As the link below shows, infringers were copying "A Christmas Carol" within two weeks after he published it, with a different title and selling for a penny a piece.

You're reading something into my post I didn't write, but maybe I wasn't clear. Dickens did get paid royalties on his authorized American editions, which were brought out by three U.S. publishers. He didn't get paid on the cheap "pirated" editions. When I find the reference I'll post it.


I did misunderstand. I would still enjoy seeing your references. I have been unable to locate a good reference for any royalties paid to Dickens by U.S. publishers. I have tried several searches and they all point to Dicken's chagrin with U.S. piracy.

Re: Chuck Dickens' American royalties, see the link Harper, House of 1817 here.

He was paid by Harper & Brothers (not Sons, as I mistakenly said earlier), Henry Carey and Company, and T.B. Peterson of Philly. Harper did pirate a couple of his books earlier. I still can't find the book quote and reference, but hopefully will.

It would be interesting to look in the archives of these old publishers, if they exist. Maybe someone at Harper could track it down.

On the other hand, I had some business in the building that houses the New York office of The Economist recently, so I stopped in and asked the receptionist if I could speak to a manager to see if they might put all their back issues online. She looked at me like I belonged on Mars. The Economist had some good anti-patent stuff back in the 1840s and 1850s. Now they're bunch of pro-gun control panty waisters, who waffle on intellectual monopoly.


Interesting reference. So Dickens' works were being pirated for 25 years before someone paid Dickens for rights. However, the article also states that Dickens had tired of the fight and died soon after (I guess fighting for 25 years pooped him out - it would poop me out). Interestingly, in 1868 (the year after he was paid the royalty that your link references) he vowed to never denounce America again.

I tried to find out what would have been typical royalties that Dickens would have received in Britain and was unsuccessful. That would have been a nice comparison.

Dickens was always very sensitive to the downtrodden of the British empire, and the misuse and single-minded accumulation of wealth was frequently a topic of his books. Obviously, his support of international copyright indicates that he believed even the common man should provide a reasonable royalty to the provider of entertainment.

Re The Economist: Yes, they have a propensity to be anti-gun, and have gone more in that direction over the last couple of decades. They tend to be all over the place with IP. Sometimes they support it, sometimes not, just depending on the situation. However, I guess I do the same thing, so I should be sympathetic.

The Philly publisher actually paid Dickens from day 1 of their relationship; so did Carey. Harper was the exception, and they did eventually pay, although my recollection from the book I can't find is that the letter to Dickens claimed he was paid earlier. Either way, he was paid royalties while falsely claiming he wasn't.

I think that most literary historians and Dickens' biographers parrot his claim that he wasn't paid simply because they haven't tracked down the facts. It's easier to repeat the urban legend that he wasn't paid than to do the dusty archival (or other) reading to learn the truth. To the extent his biographers are hagiographers, it might be uncomfortable for them to admit that their hero was a bit inventive with the facts, like a politician.

Here's the reference: Edward Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens: A Victorian Portrait (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1929), intro. by Gamaliel Bradford, pp. 240-41. The three publishers he mentions are Ticknor and Fields, Harper and Brothers, and T.P. Peterson and Brothers. The latter two claimed they had paid him royalties on every copy sold for years. I'm inclined to believe this account, not the other one.

Thank you. Very interesting information.

I think it would be interesting to track down some additional facts regarding royalties paid to Dickens, and how they compared to his English royalties. I do believe your 1929 cite. I see little reason why that author would lie or provide disinformation.

I do believe that Dickens may well have distorted the truth, or even possibly lied. If so, it is likely he did so because he thought pirates were making more from his works than he was.

This article on Dickens gets his U.S. royalty situation partly right and partly wrong. The pirates increased his popularity, as the article notes; but it repeats the old canard that he earned nothing from his American sales. Urban legends die hard deaths. It's up to us to set the record straight.
Here's another article on Dickens.

Some interesting stuff. I tried referencing the book you mentioned from 1929. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be available on the net. Indeed, the only references to these publisher paying royalties to Dickens in a Google search were from you. I think I would like to get my hands on the original reference.

I had seen the latter article that you linked to. That article was interesting because it pointed out Dickens contentions regarding royalties (that you and I had already discussed), but that article also put in the counter argument that Dickens' "fame" was expanded by the pirated copies.

It is possible that Dickens' fame was enhanced by the pirated copies, but Dickens did not feel as though he earned much from that expanded fame.

More than one well-known author has taken actions they might otherwise have not because of copyright violations.

Here are two references in the New York Public Library.

I didn't know about the second edition of the book, published in 1966.


What am I looking for? When I click the link it takes me to Catnyp and a long list. Can you tell me the search terms I need?

Click "title" on the searchbox at the left. In the searchbox to the right, type in The Man Charles Dickens.

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