Confederate Copyright Policy and the Limits of Dickens’ Abolitionism

Most histories of copyright discuss Dickens’ frustration with the lack of protection for international copyright in the 19th century US.  This I didn’t know:

Charles Dickens was an abolitionist and wrote of his feeling of the uncanny when encountering his first slave, serving him dinner at his hotel in Baltimore in 1842. Yet, when senators from the slave states assured him of their support for international copyright, he warmed up. His intense dislike of the Northern publishers, who chiseled him out of his royalties, encouraged his eventual support for the Southern cause during the Civil War. One might have thought that the Southern states had more pressing concerns in 1861 than copyright (just as one might have thought this about the French revolutionaries in 1791). But the political implications of copyright were significant enough to justify such an investment by the rebel politicians. With few publishing interests the South stood to lose little to copyright. To distinguish itself from the North, cultivate an aristocratic and nonmercantile national identity, and appeal to the British, the Confederacy passed an international copyright law, protecting foreign authors whose governments extended reciprocal protection to Americans. Southern gentlemen, one Confederate journalist claimed, would rather pay quintuple the price for a British edition than buy a pirated Yankee one.

From Peter Baldwin’s excellent The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Transatlantic Battle.


‘Big Deals’ and Publisher-Library Competition

Andrew Odlyzko has a very interesting draft article on  “Open Access,  Library and Publisher Competition.”  The piece covers a lot of territory, but the core argument that (1) in the digital environment, publishers and libraries compete for the role of access provider to materials; (2)  the publishers/content owners have some important advantages in this match up, including that the libraries are still defending large physical plants; and (3) truly low-cost open access models have developed too slowly to challenge them.  Add piracy and you have something close to the model of the ‘ecology of access’ to educational materials at the center of our current work.

One important point Odlyzko makes is that Harvard’s widely-cited revolt against journal subscription prices last year happened in a context of extensive price discrimination by the publishers.  Elsevier and others charge the Harvards of the world a lot more than they do the U Montanas–or U Capetowns, for that matter–for the same journal bundles.  Obviously they can ill-afford defections at the high end, but one benefit of the strategy has been expanded access at schools with fewer resources.

Protesters, such as those who endorse the boycott [of Elsevier], tend to cite the high profits of commercial publishers, most commonly of Elsevier, the largest one, as injurious to scholarly communication, and unjust, being based on donated labor of academics. They also often complain about the “Big Deals” that large publishers, again with Elsevier in the forefront, force libraries into, cf. [4,11]. In these contracts, which are universally shrouded in secrecy, libraries are forced to accept multi-year commitments with steady price escalation and little flexibility in selecting what journals they get. This has all the obvious disadvantages for libraries and the academic community. However, such discussions almost universally ignore the positive effects of the “Big Deals,” as well as the degree to which those positive effects are key to the main action in scholarly publishing, namely the competition between libraries and publishers. …. Continue reading “‘Big Deals’ and Publisher-Library Competition”

The Curse of Tanya Grotter

Ted Striphas has a great account in The Late Age of Print of the legal battles surrounding unauthorized adaptations of the Harry Potter novels.  All the usual “Media Piracy” elements are in play here: “windowing” practices for massive global hits that make them unavailable for months or years in developing countries.  Extensive local adaptations and commercializations at lower prices.  The zero point of originality determined by who has the most lawyers.  Among the nice touches: a Dutch court splitting hairs over whether Harry Potter was itself a derivative work.

Despite Rowling, Warner Bros., and other authorities’ intensive global efforts to police their coveted Harry Potter copyrights and trademarks, fakery has proven to be endemic to the book series. Consider what China Today calls “The Chinese Harry Potter Epidemic,” or a spate of “Harry Potter read-alikes” circulating in and around the country. These include books like Harry Potter’s Sister, author Serge Brussolo’s book Girl Wizard Peggy Sue, which Chinese publishers retitled and repackaged—apparently without the author’s consent—hoping to cash in on China’s Pottermania. Then there’s The Magic Violin, a novel purportedly written by nine-year-old Bian Jinyang. As with Harry Potter’s Sister, Bian’s publisher attempted to capitalize on the explosive popularity of the Harry Potter series by reissuing the book under the title China’s Harry Potter. Continue reading “The Curse of Tanya Grotter”

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…. Continue reading “Canadian Book Pirates”

Sell-Through Breakdown

You’ve heard of the big four record labels and probably the big six studios, but how about the big four textbook publishers: Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt? I’m reading up on the publishing business in anticipation of our next project on access to educational materials in universities and, man, has this business gotten itself into a jam. And all very familiar sounding and all prior to any significant digital piracy in the textbook market. A key development, it seems, was the organization of the used textbook market in the late 1990s, which led to declining ‘sell-through’ of new copies of textbooks after the first year of introduction and a spiraling strategy of price increases and rapid releases of new editions—which exist solely to make the previous editions circulating in the used market obsolete. Here’s John Thompson’s account in Books in the Digital Age (2005). Continue reading “Sell-Through Breakdown”