Tuesday, April 06, 2010

2d to buy a plate of shin-beef, or more shepherds than Prince Esterhazy?

Hansard, 1841, the Copy-right bill[1]. Mr Mucauley speaking:

"And a man is very little moved by the thought that in the year 2000 or 2100 somebody who claims through him will employ more shepherds than Prince Esterhazy, and will have the finest house and gallery of pictures at Victoria or Sydney.

"Now, this is the sort of boon which my hon. and learned Friend holds out to authors, Considered as a boon to them, it is a mere nullity; but, considered as an impost on the public, it is no nullity, but a very serious and fatal reality; I will take an example. Dr. Johnson died fifty-six years ago. If the law were what my hon. and learned Friend wishes to make it, somebody would now have the monopoly of Dr. Johnson's works. Who that somebody would be, it is impossible to say, but we may venture to guess. I guess, then, that it would have been some bookseller, who was the assign of another bookseller, who was the grandson of a third bookseller, who had bought the copyright from Black Frank, the Doctor's servant, in 1785 or 1786.

"Now, would the knowledge, that this copyright would exist in 1841, have been a source of gratification to Johnson? Would it have stimulated his exertions? Would it have once drawn him out of his bed before noon? Would it have once cheered him under a fit of the spleen? Would it have induced him to give us one more allegory, one more life of a poet, one more imitation of Juvenal? I firmly believe not. I firmly believe that a hundred years ago, when he was writing our debates for the Gentleman's Magazine, he would very much rather have had twopence to buy a plate of shin of beef at a cook's shop underground. Considered as a reward to him, the difference between a twenty years' term, and a sixty years' term of posthumous copyright, would have been nothing or next to nothing.

"But is the difference nothing to us? I can buy Rassselas for sixpence; I might have had to give five shillings for it. I can buy the Dictionary—the entire genuine Dictionary—for two guineas, perhaps for less; I might have had to give five or six guineas for it. Do I grudge this to a man like Dr. Johnson? Not at all. Show me that the prospect of this boon roused him to any vigorous effort, or sustained his spirits under depressing circumstances, and I am quite willing to pay the price of such an object, heavy as that price is. But what I do complain of is that my circumstances are to be worse, and Johnson's none the better, that I am to give five pounds for what to him was not worth a farthing.

"The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers. The tax is an exceedingly bad one; it is a tax on one of the most innocent and most salutary of human pleasures; and never let us forget that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures. I admit, however, the necessity of giving a bounty to genius and learning. In order to give such a bounty, I willingly submit even to this severe and burdensome tax. Nay, I am ready to increase the tax if it can be shown that by so doing I should proportion ably increase the bounty. My complaint is, that my hon. and learned Friend doubles, triples, quadruples, the tax, and makes scarcely any perceptible addition to the bounty."

Plus ├ža change...

[1] The core proposal in this bill was the raising of the length of copyright from 28 to 60 years. In the EU, the term is currently "Life + 70 years" or "Creation +70 years." In the US it's "Life +70" or the shorter of "Publication +95/Creation +120."