Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/November 1878/Professor Tyndall Before the English Copyright Commission

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QUESTION (Chairman). I believe you have published not only in England, but in the United States?

Answer. I have published about a dozen volumes in England, and most, if not the whole of them, have been reproduced in the United States.

Q. With your sanction?

A. With my sanction. I make an arrangement with my publishers, the Messrs. Appleton, in New York, and they every year send me an account of their sales, and allow me a certain percentage on the retail price of my books.

Q. Now you have heard, I think, since you have been in this room, the scheme which has been submitted to the consideration of this commission, by which the existing law of copyright would be repealed and the system of royalty established in its place, under which a publisher of the first edition of a new work would have what we may call a close time of a year, and after that it would be open to any other publisher, paying a fixed royalty to the author, to bring out new editions of that work. Have you turned your attention to the probable operation of a scheme of that sort, on the works, for instance, that you yourself have published?

A. I have given it some attention since the subject was first mentioned to me by a member of this commission, and I have listened to the evidence given in this room since I came into it. In that evidence I have heard over and over again beliefs expressed of what would occur if the royalty scheme were to become law. These beliefs are to be pitted against what we now know as certainties; and taking everything into account, I prefer the certainty now known to me to the beliefs expressed by the witness who preceded me. It would be in my opinion a gross injustice, and might open a channel to interference of a still more serious and sweeping character, if the rights of an author over his hard-earned intellectual property were interfered with in the manner I have heard indicated here.

Q. Now under the present law has it been your custom to part with your copyright in the first instance, or only for a limited period?

A. The first work that I ever published was given to an eminent publisher; and I was averse to making any arrangement whatever with him. In those days I thought it in a measure ungentlemanly to bargain or haggle with a publisher; and I left it to him to do what he pleased with the volume. Subsequently, the Messrs. Longman, and particularly Mr. William Longman, pressed me more than once to publish a volume of lectures, and about 1862 I agreed to do so. There was at that time a subject of great and growing importance, regarding which the English public were entirely uninformed, though the public intelligence was raised, I thought, to a sufficient level to profit by a clear exposition. With very hard labor I accomplished a volume on this subject. I felt myself free (and this is the liberty that I should very much object to see limited in any way) to say to Mr. Longman that I should regard him as a business-man; that publishers were, to my knowledge, very competent to take care of themselves, and that I was determined, if he published a volume of mine, also to take care of myself and meet him on business-terms. It was his wish that I should do so, and we then and there entered into an agreement for a single edition of the work. That has been my practice with Messrs. Longman up to the present hour, I sell my books to them edition by edition, always retaining the right to dispose as I please of the subsequent editions of each work. The expenses of each edition—of printing, paper, and advertisements—are added up, the book is priced by mutual agreement, the profits are ascertained, and on the day of publication I receive a certain proportion of those profits. I do this for the purpose of detaching myself as much as possible from business questions when the work is done.

Q. Under the present law you make your own arrangements for the sale of each edition?

A. I do.

Q. And under the proposed change of the law, as you apprehend it, instead of your having the freedom to do that and make an arrangement on your own terms with your publisher, the law would step in after the first edition and insist upon a certain rate of remuneration being afforded you by any publisher who chose to take your work and publish a new edition of it?

A. That is the impression that I have received of the proposed scheme, and I conceive that nothing can be more unfair. I think it would be simply flagitious to interfere with the rights of an author to that extent.

Q. (Sir J. Benedict). Could you imagine any change in the law which you would propose to facilitate the acquirement by the public of works of such a character as you write yourself, or would it be possible to make the agreement such that the price of the books, which now is the great bar to their popularity in the first instance, could be lowered without injury to the author and to the publisher?

A. That is a subject on which at the moment I should not like to offer an opinion. I am here speaking of an author's rights over the produce of his own hard work. I may perhaps refer to a fact that was brought to my mind by the examination of the gentleman who preceded me. I think it perfectly fair for an author, if he thinks fit, to write a work that appeals to the wealthier classes of the community.[2] I wrote a little book some years ago called "Faraday as a Discoverer," in which I gave a sketch of Faraday's life and work. The book was published at 6s. or 7s.; it is a small book; I gave myself great trouble to write it, and the edition was very soon sold. Many of my friends urged upon me that it was almost a duty for me, and that for the public it would be a boon if a cheap edition of that book were published. It was accordingly published at the price of 3s. 6d., but the sale of that book was by no means so rapid or so remunerative as the sale of the dearer one had been.

Q. (Sir H. D. Wolff). In regard to that book, will you forgive my asking you, do not you think that the reason why the sale of the cheap edition at 3s. 6d. was slower than of the edition at 6s. was owing to the two prices being rather near each other; there is not that enormous gap between the prices that there is, for instance, between 25s. and 6s.?

A. That is true; but I should not be inclined to ascribe the slower sale of the cheaper book to the smallness of the gap. I think the first book appealed to a highly-intelligent class, that associated with their intelligence the means of purchasing the book, and they did purchase it. Had the book been published in the first instance at 3s. 6d., no doubt that same class of buyers would have purchased the book, but it would certainly have been at my personal loss.

Q. Perhaps that may be the case; but if you had published it originally, instead of at 6s., at a higher price, do not you think that probably your sale would not have been as large as it was at 6s.?

A. That I cannot say. I always have a conversation with my publisher on these matters, and I defer very much to his knowledge.

Q. But at once by publishing at 6s. you addressed yourself to a public who could afford 6s., instead of to a public only who could afford a higher price. Many people could pay 6s. who could not pay 12s. 6d.?

A. I assume authors to possess a certain amount of conscience; and if Mr. Longman had proposed to me to publish that book at 12s. 6d., I should have objected to the price. Considering the amount of labor I had invested in the book, I should not have allowed him to publish it at 12s. 6d.

Q. That is because you are an exceptionally conscientious man perhaps?

A. Speaking for myself, I certainly should have prohibited that.

Q. You mentioned that you considered that the plan that we have been discussing with the last witness would be an interference with your rights. May I ask you exactly to define what you think your rights are? I will tell you why I ask you that; it is this, I want to know whether your rights are rights of remuneration, or rights of control over the publication, that is to say, the type in which it is to be, or the particular form in which it is to be published?

A. I am speaking altogether of rights of remuneration. An illustration occurs at the present moment. I am now engaged on the sixth edition of my book on "Heat," and I really intend to go in a few days to the Messrs. Longman and to say, "I think that, considering your labor and mine, we ought to have another arrangement, and that 1 ought to receive a higher proportion of the profits than I have hitherto received. You know it is open to me to go to another publisher, and you also know that I shall have no difficulty in obtaining the terms which I now offer to you." I regard it as my undoubted right, considering the labor I have expended on those works, to take them to the best market. If Longman does not give me my terms I should like to have the liberty of going to Macmillan, Chapman & Hall, Mr. Henry King, or Mr. Murray. That is the right I claim.

Q. You stand in a far better position toward Mr. Longman than an unknown man would?

A. I dare say; but I have had to raise myself into that position by very hard work.

Q. You said just now that these were only "beliefs" that we had. You think that the system now proposed would not act as advantageously as the present system does; that is only putting one belief against the other, is it not?

A. Irrespective of beliefs I object to my liberty of action being interfered with. Even if I felt sure that I should lose nothing by the proposed change, I should still fight for my liberty of action.

Q. Now I am going to ask you a question which you can answer or not, as you like. Are your books published in America at a cheaper rate than they are in England?

A. It will perhaps be best to answer by definite examples. My volume on "Sound" was published at 9s. in England, and at 8s. 4d. in the United States. A little volume entitled "Forms of Water" was published at 5s. in this country, and 6s. 3d. in the States. "Heat" was published at 10s. 6d. in this country, and at 8s. 4d. in the States. Considering the price of labor in America, I should have inferred that books there were dearer than here, but on the whole my books appear to be somewhat cheaper in the States than in England. It should not, however, be forgotten that I usually send them stereotyped from my printer here to my publishers in New York, and that some of them have been published in a smaller form in America than here.

Q. May I ask if the percentage that you receive (if it is not a liberty to ask the question) in America on your books is as large as it would be if you had copyright in America, this voluntary percentage that they give you?

A. I cannot say, but I should be inclined to think so, because I am in the hands of a most high-minded publisher. I believe that T should gain no advantage by the copyright in America that I do not possess at present. But though I should be unaffected, on public grounds I hold that a copyright ought to exist.

Q. Then there are illustrations, I suppose, in your books, are there not?

A. Many of them are illustrated.

Q. Do you give them the plates of your illustrations, or do they reproduce them?

A. I send them over the plates of everything. I say, for instance, to Messrs. Longman, "Messrs. Appleton will require stereotyped plates, and also plates of the engravings of this book." The Longmans fix the price of the plates and receive it from the Appletons, and I am saved any further trouble in the matter.

Q. Then you have a greater protection altogether than an ordinary popular writer, inasmuch as in the first place you address yourself to a particular class, which I suppose you do to a certain extent?

A. Yes, undoubtedly.

Q. And in the second place you have the hold over your plates. To pirate your books, supposing they did that against your will, they would have to go to a great expense?

A. No doubt to some extent, but the plates are not of that expensive character that would deter a pirate. My chief safeguards are that the Messrs. Appleton are very powerful publishers, and could afford to undersell a rival, and that there is a kind of tacit understanding among the larger publishers in America that the books published by one should not be pirated by another.

Q. If Messrs. Appleton were not high-minded people they would still have a difficulty in pirating your book, because they would find a difficulty in getting the plates, you having the whole of the plates?

A. Yes; but that would apply equally to other publishers. The plates have to be produced in England and paid for in England, and a book that pays for plates in England would pay for them in America. They could not perhaps produce the books so cheaply as they now do if they had to produce the plates.

Q. Is your circulation larger in America than in England?

A. I could not say so. I have been assured over and over again that it is very large.

Q. I fancy your books are not books much read in circulating libraries; they are more books which people would study, are they not?

A. My first book that related to the Alps and glaciers might have got into the circulating libraries; but I do not remember to have seen any of my more strictly scientific works in them.

Q. (Dr. Smith.) We are right then in supposing that you object entirely to the legislature interfering by any enactment with your books, and that you prefer to make your own bargain with your own publisher?

A. I should like to be able to express to you the strength of my objection to any such interference. I hold my right to my own intellectual work to be at least as sacred as is the right of my excellent friend, whose propositions have been discussed here, to Abinger Hall.

  1. Tuesday, April 17, 1877: Lord John Manners, M.P., in the chair. Members of the commission present: Sir H. D. Wolff, Sir Julius Benedict, Sir James Stephen, Dr. William Smith.
  2. Mr. Gould, for example, wrote books on birds so sumptuously illustrated, that none but the wealthy could buy them.