Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Charles Dickens on International Copyright Law

"It was well observed the other night by a beautiful speaker, whose words went to the heart of every man who heard him, that, if there had existed any law in this respect, [Sir Walter] Scott might not have sunk beneath the mighty pressure on his brain, but might have lived to add new creatures of his fancy to the crowd which swarm about you in your summer walks, and gather round your winter evening hearths.

"As I listened to his words, there came back, fresh upon me, that touching scene in the great man’s life, when he lay upon his couch, surrounded by his family, and listened, for the last time, to the rippling of the river he had so well loved, over its stony bed. I pictured him to myself, faint, wan, dying, crushed both in mind and body by his honourable struggle, and hovering round him the phantoms of his own imagination - Waverley, Ravenswood, Jeanie Deans, Rob Roy, Caleb Balderstone, Dominie Sampson - all the familiar throng - with cavaliers, and Puritans, and Highland chiefs innumerable overflowing the chamber, and fading away in the dim distance beyond. I pictured them, fresh from traversing the world, and hanging down their heads in shame and sorrow, that, from all those lands into which they had carried gladness, instruction, and delight for millions, they brought him not one friendly hand to help to raise him from that sad, sad bed. No, nor brought him from that land in which his own language was spoken, and in every house and hut of which his own books were read in his own tongue, one grateful dollar-piece to buy a garland for his grave. Oh! if every man who goes from here, as many do, to look upon that tomb in Dryburgh Abbey, would but remember this, and bring the recollection home!"

Charles Dickens, February 7, 1842, excerpt from a speech delivered on his twenty-ninth birthday, during his first visit to the United States, to discuss international copyright. The United States had refused to enter into a reciprocal agreement on copyright with England. Publishers in this country were freely issuing Dickens's novels without paying royalties to him or his British publishers. It was another fifty years before the U.S. passed a comprehensive copyright law.

One might today replace Sir Walter Scott with Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who died in poverty.

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