Copyright disputes in the 1840s

Charles_Dickens_by_Daily_Joker.jpgWho is Charles Dickens ranting about in this letter to Henry Austin?
"Is it tolerable that besides being robbed and rifled, an author should be forced to appear in any form - in any vulgar dress - in any atrocious company - that he should have no choice of his audience - no controul [sic?]over his distorted text - and that he should be compelled to jostle out of the course, the best men in this country who only ask to live, by writing?"
The not entirely surprising answer: American Publishers. Read more about the debate at the Literary and Debating Society at the Mechanics' Institute of Montreal (now known as the Atwater Library and Computer Centre).


  1. It seems he had a stratospheric opinion of himself. Writers are just like everybody else, only more so because they spend so much time alone and their principle traits magnify themselves.

  2. There is a good and fictional account of Dickens and the agressive copywrite violators back in his days. It is called “The Last Dickens” by Mathew Pearl. Just finished it the other day.

  3. jelgula, what you miss is that in Dickens’ time, the US was a complete “pirate nation”: foreign copyrights and patents were not honored. That means that American publishers sold Dickens’ works without paying him a dime.

    And Dickens was the best-selling author in America. He finally figured out how to make some money off the Yanks, by going on lecture tours.

  4. Anonymous #2, the American publishers at the time weren’t violating any copyrights, because Dickens had no copyright. Anything written outside the US was public domain in the US, fit for anyone to “steal”.

    This wasn’t changed until 1891.

  5. he makes a good argument against concurrent copying of copyrighted material but I think that was legally decided in his favor a century ago. It is the laws that came out post those that are the real problem with copyright and what the majority of the argument these days is about.

    One could even argue that with out Dickens falling into public domain, Dickens would not be as popular today as he is for were the body of his works not in public domain it would take a corporate interest to keep him in popular culture.

  6. Mr. Dickens problem should have been with his own government. Issues like this are settled by international treaty not in the court of public opinion.

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