Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/March 1883/Piratical Publishers

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



THE republishes of foreign books and periodicals at cheap rates have long and meekly borne the name which heads this article. I propose to show that they do not also deserve it.

Piracy is robbery in its boldest form, having no warrant but the strength of the bloody hand that commits it. It is against all law and all right, human or divine. It has no sanction nor show of sanction from the practice of others recognized, in all the walks of life, as respectable and honored citizens.

Will this description apply to the reprinting of foreign books? Certainly not. What, then, is the crime of which republishers are guilty? Their calumniators will answer, "Oh! they rob the foreign author of the product of his brain." Let us see if this is true. I grant that if all the nations of the earth had one common interest and one common government to support it, so that legislation should always be for the mutual advantage of all the inhabitants—the same in one section as in another—then the reprinting of a book by or for any one but its author would be a violation of right; but as this Utopia does not and never will exist, we must deal with men, and governments, and their selfishness as w T e find them. Nations legislate for what they believe to be to their own advantage, and without regard to the interests of their neighbors. Thus, England manufactures goods, and the manufacturer claims that he has a natural right freely to offer these goods as cheaply in one part of the world as in another, save only the cost of conveyance. But do other countries recognize such right? Does this country, for instance, acknowledge it when she lays a heavy duty upon such manufactures? When such duty is so great as to prohibit the importation of a manufactured article that would, if free of duty, sell largely in the United States, is not the manufacturer as effectually robbed as the author whose sales are rendered impossible by a reprint of his book?

Doubtless I shall be told that the cases are not parallel, inasmuch as in the one case the Government of the United States commits the trespass, and in the other its private citizens. I confess I see no difference. Government represents and legislates for its private citizens. Its tariff for revenue furnishes the means which would otherwise have to be taken by direct taxation from the pockets of the people. Its tariff for protection gives encouragement to native manufacturers; the whole system of levying duties upon foreign merchandise is one of pure selfishness, and as much a robbery or piracy of the natural rights of the foreigner as anything yet done by an American republisher. Suppose there were no such market for English books as the United States now offers, would English publishers any the less continue to print them? These works are produced mainly for the markets of Great Britain and its English-speaking dependencies. The withholding of an international copyright law does not take away from them what they never possessed or had any right to claim. The American republisher, therefore, in the absence of such a law, buys the English book at the English price, and thinks he has done all that is required of him to become its absolute owner, to do with it whatever the laws of his country do not forbid. Who shall say that among these rights is not the right to reprint it? "But," say the advocates of copyright, "inventors are protected by international patent-right, and, if the product of the inventor's brain is entitled to protection, that of the author's is no less so." Here, however, self-interest is again clearly indicated. There was a time when international patent right did not exist between the United States and Great Britain; but when it became notorious that the inventions of Americans were more numerous and more valuable than those of other countries, our Government willingly consented to international patent-right, and I venture to say that, when American books shall be as popular in England as English books are in the United States, copyright will no longer be withheld.

It will doubtless be urged that I am placing our government in an unenviable light; that selfishness and not right rules its conduct. I answer that all governments, under like conditions, would pursue a similar course. Great Britain may arrogate to herself national liberality for having opened her ports, with little or no restriction, to the commerce of the world; but the motives which prompted such liberality were as purely selfish as were those of the United States in fettering commerce by her high tariff. Great Britain, assured of her supremacy as the great manufacturer of the world, did not fear the competition of other manufacturers, whether protected or not; and she became, at once, the advocate and the exemplar of free trade, believing that other nations would reciprocate, and thus give greater encouragement to the commerce in which, as a nation, her chief interest lies. Disappointed in her expectations that other countries would follow her example, she is now considering the policy of abandoning "free trade" for what she calls "fair trade," self-interest again prompting this change of attitude toward other nations; and yet she is not in reality any more selfish in the one case than in the other.

Referring again to what is called the moral wrong of using the product of another's brain without remuneration, I would ask, "Why this special claim of a foreign author?" Does not our government send experts abroad to gain information on subjects of the greatest importance to our interests at home? Do not these experts closely examine the establishments, public and private, of the Old World and gain all the information possible in regard to them? Do they not visit the great manufactories in all their variety; the workshops, the docks, war-vessels, arsenals, colleges, schools, prisons, hospitals, and churches; and inquire into and observe the modes of foreign life, social, industrial, political, and religious? In short, do they not inform themselves of everything likely to be of benefit to their own country, and, although the information given them may have been the result of centuries of brain-labor, do their countrymen hesitate to appropriate such information to their own use and without pay? The fact is that, the intercommunication of nations gives advantages which isolation could not afford, and if such advantages include the spread of knowledge among the people, obtained either in the way I have here described, or by the cheap reprint of a foreign book, it would be difficult to show anything criminal in thus acquiring it.

In conclusion, it may be well to remark that, even in England, brain-property is not treated like that known as personal or real, for, while the latter has perpetual protection by law, the former has only protection within prescribed limits, the English copyright extending only for a certain number of years, and it is well known that many of the most valuable standard works, both in prose and poetry, are being continually republished in England without any remuneration to the authors or their heirs. If authors have an inherent right to the products of their brains, the lapse of time should be no reason for taking that right away, and English publishers are as morally guilty of robbery when they fail to make remuneration to such authors or their legal representatives, after the law no longer protects them, as are the American publishers who do the same with English copyright books for which there is no American protection. O most conscientious Briton! when thou doest unto others as thou wouldst that others should do unto thee, then mayst thou, with more consistency, indulge in the abuse of those whom thou delightest to call "piratical publishers."