Mark Twain's nutty 1906 plan to extend copyright

Alek sez, "The boundless archive of the NYT has spat out for me an article about Mark Twain's cunning plan to beat the early 20th century copyright law, with its short copyright terms. In short, Twain planned to republish every one of his works the moment it went out of copyright, with one-third more content in the shape of his serialized bibliography. He hoped that availability of such 'premium' version will make prints based on the out-of-copyright version less desirable on the market. There's a gem in the first paragraph - the author suggests that Twain's plan 'makes the present copyright law look like a very sick and discomfited pirate, indeed.' So, who's the pirate here?!" Link (Thanks, Alek!)

Update: Siva Vaidhyanathan sez, "I have an entire chapter in my first book about Twain and his shifting ideas about copyright. At the beginning, he was totally tolerant -- even celebratory -- about use, re-use, and revision. And he loved cheap books, so he was critical of efforts toward a treaty with the British and for term extension.

Only later, when he was old and worried that his daughters could not make a living for themselves, did he get interested in perpetual copyright. His plan was indeed wacky. But it reveals a lot about the status of authorship and the state of American publishing at the turn of the 20th century. (See Copyrights and Copywrongs, Ch. 2)"


  1. Twain also trademarked his name. On the other hand, the guy invented a shirt with a drawstring at the bottom that he thought would replace suspenders. Why a belt wasn’t sufficient, I couldn’t say.

  2. Isn’t this a good thing? Rather than pervert the law, he actually intended to add value to his IP to encourage repurchase. This sort of innovation is what we would have gotten if copyrights weren’t effectively forever.

  3. I’m with Krisjohn. Twain’s plan seems perfectly reasonable. It wouldn’t prevent the expiration of copyright on the original work, simply make it potentially less desirable.

    Translated to the modern world, as soon as the book was off copyright you could download it off the ‘net, record audio books of it, etc, printers could print new editions of it if they wished, but the “author’s preferred edition” would still probably sell plenty, keeping money flowing to the author.

  4. This reminds me of Igor Stravinsky’s trouble with copyright issues. International copyright law didn’t protect The Firebird (a huge potential money-maker), and he put out a revised version of the Firebird Suite in 1945 largely to get a version under copyright. He had similar trouble with Petroushka, with the added twist that he had quoted music he heard street musicians playing which of course turned out to be the intellectual property of other composers (he was quoting popular songs and the songwriters weren’t anonymous).

  5. Uh, you guys are missing the point. Reread the title of this post: Twain is arguing for the Copyright *Extension* Bill. (The author of this article is saying we should take him seriously since he already has this nutty scheme to work around the limits as they affect his books).

    Twain argued that ownership over writing and ideas, as in real estate, should never expire.

  6. Twain had gone through bankruptcy a few years before, and although he had paid creditors and clawed his way back to solvency by 1906, it’s clear that he was highly concerned about his children living in penury. He eventually lost three of his four children during his life.

  7. As I recall, throughout his life, Twain was concerned with getting as much money as possible from his work. This sounds consistent with his general practice.

  8. To the first commenter: trademarking “Mark Twain” seems perfectly reasonable, as of course it wasn’t actually his name but rather something he used as, well, a trademark.

  9. You can read about Mark Twain’s subsequent testifying before Congress here:

    With the full transcript here:

    Copyright during the 19th century and into the early 20th was an fascinating affair. The pirates (the term originated from Rudyard Kipling’s “Rhyme of the Three Captains”) in this sense were actually large book publishers (strange in this day of effortless digital copying) like Harper Brothers. You can read about it here:

  10. Of course, Mark Twain never anticipated the arrival of things like eBay, where the originally superseded works might end up being worth more than the subsequent editions, and where he would see none of the proceeds of such after-market sale.

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