Mark Twain, The Copyright Crusader With Tongue In Cheek
On July 5, 2012, 2:35 PM by Andrew Belonsky
As copyright laws become more abundant, their origins might surprise you.
Remember a few months ago when you were trying to download the latest ‘Game of Thrones’ episode and received a letter from your all-knowing ISP warning you against illegal copyright infringement? Well, you can thank Mark Twain for that.
Like a turn of the century amalgamation of litigious Steve Jobs and satire-wielding Stephen Colbert, Twain spent the last thirty years of his life using his fame, influence and wit to fight for copyright laws and authors’ collective coffers, even as he warned of money’s sinister side effects.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the Huckleberry Finn author originally had a fairly laissez-faire attitude about copyrights. Starting his career as a poor journalist without money or a name to protect, Twain had little interest in the nitty gritty details of ownership laws, time limits or the proposed copyright treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain.
Even after the 1865 short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” launched his career, Twain kept out of the debate. He liked buying bargain-priced copies of British works that flooded the American market and cared not if foreign publishers sold his works for a song. As far as Twain and the majority of America were concerned, it was a win/win scenario.
Twain’s views changed around 1870, when the author began challenging Canadian publishers who had been pirating his materials and reaping the rewards he believed were rightfully his. At that point there were no international treaties on copyright or author’s ownership, but Twain nevertheless began lobbying for it. To that end, in 1875 Twain joined fellow novelist William Dean Howell in an aggressive letter-writing campaign to Congress. But even then, Twain remained on the outskirts of the domestic copyright fray.
More rich and famous than ever, in the mid-1870s and 1880s Twain plunged into the ever-expanding publishing industry, soon pouring out vast amounts of money into the Paige Composition machine. Named after its creator, James W. Paige, the automatic typesetter was meant to replace the need for easily-forged printing plates and manual labor. Unfortunately, Paige himself tinkered too long with the machine, which gave competitors time to beat him to market. Between 1880 and 1894, Twain spent an astounding $300,000 –- $6 million today — on the machine and soon became broke.
Growing debt no doubt played a role in Twain’s decision to delve deeper into the domestic battle over ownership rights. As the 1880s progressed, Twain filed more lawsuits against literary pirates and later joined a loose coalition of authors, publishers and trade unions hoping to both stem the influx of foreign books and lengthen copyright time limits. This at-times fractious group spent the next decade lobbying Congressional lawmakers with renewed vigor. It was the politicians, Twain wrote in 1886, who were “glorifying American nationality, preaching it, urging it, building it up — with their mouths; and undermining and pulling it down with their acts.”
But Twain’s copyright fight wasn’t motivated solely by his economic well-being. He also worried that a nascent American culture was being trampled by popular international works that he said “filled the imagination with an unhealthy fascination with foreign life.” And just as 21st century America listened when comedian Stephen Colbert used his conservative alter ego to address the plight of migrant workers and to champion super PACs, the world listened when publisher Samuel Clemens’ alter ego, humorist Mark Twain, began rooting for new literary controls.
The US Constitution clearly states that Congress must “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” And while copyright incentivized American writers’ productivity, it also guaranteed the public free access to their work down the road. Public good trumped private gain. But the rise of both literacy and piracy in the 19th century called the current limit — 28 years with a 14-year renewal — into question. Twain wanted to extend ownership to the author’s life with a 50-year renewal. It was an uphill battle. Congress clearly was not as interested in copyright law: it took them about 20 years to come up with some semblance of an agreement.
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