Trollope On American Copyright Law

The following long quotation is from the Autobiography of Anthony Trollope, expressing his feelings about American piracy of British intellectual property in the year 1876. Trollope, one of the most popular novelists of the 19th century, on par with Dickens, also held a senior post in the British Postal Service (he invented the mailbox). Trollope was authorized to try to negotiate the entrance of America to an international copyright pact while he was here negotiating a postal treaty.

I fancied that I knew that the opposition to an international copyright was by no means an American feeling, but was confined to the bosoms of a few interested Americans [publishers who pirated English novels, MR]. All that I did and heard in reference to the subject on this further visit, and having a certain authority from the British Secretary of State with me I could hear and do something, altogether confirmed me in tis view. I have no doubt that if I could poll American readers, or American Senators, or even American Representatives, if the polling could be unbiased, or American Booksellers, that an assent to international copyright would be the result. The state of things is crushing to American authors, as the publishers will not pay them on a liberal scale, knowing that they can supply their customers with modern English literature without paying for it. The English amount of production so exceeds the American, that the rate at which the former can be published rules the market. It is equally injurious to American booksellers, except to two or three of the greatest houses. No small man can now acquire the exclusive right of printing and selling an English book. If such a one attempt it, the work is reprinted instantly by one of the leviathans, who alone are the gainers. The argument of course is that American readers are the gainers, that as they can get for nothing the use of certain property, they would be cutting their own throats were they to pass a law debarring themselves from the power of such appropriation. In this argument all idea of honesty is thrown to the winds. It is not that they do not approve of a system of copyright, as many great men have disapproved, for their own law of copyright is as stringent as ours. A bold assertion is made that they like to appropriate the goods of other people, and that as in this case they can do so with impunity, they will continue to do so. But the argument, as far as I have been able to judge, comes not from the people, but from the book selling leviathans, and from those politicians whom the leviathans are able to attach to their interests. The ordinary American purchaser is not much affected by slight variations in price. He is at any rate too high-hearted to be affected by the prospect of such variation. It is the man who wants to make money, not he who fears he may be called upon to spend it, who controls such matters in the United States. It is the large speculator who becomes powerful in the lobbies of the House, and understands how wise it may be to incur a great expenditure either in the creation of a great business, or in protecting that which he has created from competition.

While the copyright has long since expired on Trollope's works, his understanding of the politics of copyright remains fresh.

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