Canadian Book Pirates

An interesting account of the Canadian side of 19th century trans-Atlantic book piracy (from Rowland Lorimer’s Ultra Libris)

It was routine for [Canadian] booksellers to sell pirated editions of British titles, produced in and imported from the United States, rather than importing from Britain. Like European countries of the time, the United States did not recognize British copyright law. Nor did Britain recognize the copyright laws of other countries, the United States included. The importation of pirated works into the British Empire (i.e., Canada), where U.K. copyright law clearly did hold, was a problematic but prevailing reality. Responding to intense lobbying by booksellers, and wanting some revenue rather than none, in 1847 the British passed the Foreign Reprints Act, which allowed booksellers to import pirated editions of U.K. books for a 12.5 percent tax. This act not only officially sidelined Canadian printers, but also hijacked a significant part of the pre-Confederation market from Canadian distributors of British works. A U.S. company could print and publish U.K. copyright books to be sold in Canada, but a Canadian company, because it was within the British Empire, could not print and publish the same titles….

In an attempt to counter their disadvantageous political and legal position, Lovell and his fellow Canadian publishers John Ross Robertson and the Belford Brothers began pirating U.S. publications in the 1870s and 1880s, including those of Mark Twain. They sold them in Canada, and in some cases shipped them into the United States to be sold at a price that undercut the U.S. publisher. As might be expected, the Americans were unhappy, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) was personally outraged. In an attempt to claim royalties on the Canadian printings, Clemens established a Montreal residence, but the courts of the day ruled that he required a “domicile,” a permanent residence in Canada, to bring a successful case of copyright infringement. Clemens also lobbied hard, and eventually successfully, for the creation of a U.S. copyright act.
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The Canadian Copyright Act of 1872 was an early attempt to carve out the market for Canadians. The 1872 act shut out both foreign reprints and original British editions, restricting the market to Canadian publishers. From the perspective of principle, the act had the disadvantage of condoning the reprinting of works without their authors’ permission. The British Parliament disallowed the act one year later….

In 1885, Britain signed the Berne Convention, the first international copyright convention, which printers in Canada resisted over the next two decades as it outlawed reprinting without permission of the author. After passage of the 1891 U.S. Copyright Act and an accompanying agreement, the Anglo-American Reciprocal Copyright Agreement, American pirated editions of British titles gradually disappeared from both the Canadian and U.S. markets…

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