Charles Dickens, Copyright Pioneer

24 June 2015

Lucinda Hawksley, ALCS Member and great great great granddaughter of Charles Dickens reflects on copyright law, then and now, and the vital campaigning role her illustrious forebear played in its creation.

On a recent visit to the Dickens Museum in London, I showed friends from Chicago – one of whom is an author – the exhibition by ALCS on Dickens and Copyright. It provoked a discussion about how essential copyright is and how tenuous it has started to feel in our constantly evolving digital world. Writers, artists and musicians are feeling as vulnerable as they did in Dickens’ time. Almost every writer has a story of their work being devalued: publishers offering ludicrously low advances, literary festivals, TV companies and radio programmes presuming an author will always work for free because it’s “great book publicity”, and authors discovering that “free downloads” of their work are widely available. Victorian authors fought hard for the creation of effective copyright laws and an international copyright agreement. Today, the member states of the EU are battling out copyright laws once again.

From the very beginning of his career, my great great great grandfather was plagued by plagiarism

Charles Dickens was one of the most vociferous copyright campaign supporters of his generation and, although he did not win the battle in his lifetime, his concerted efforts to put copyright at the forefront of political agendas, was a major influence on the final creation of fair copyright law. From the very beginning of his career, my great great great grandfather was plagued by plagiarism. As with all his novels, Dickens wrote The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in instalments, writing each section to a deadline and publishing as it was written. The Pickwick Papers (as it is known today) appeared in monthly parts from March 1836 to October 1837. Even as Dickens was still formulating his plot, other writers began working on pirated versions. For his stage play The Pickwick Club or the Age We Live In, dramatist Edward Stirling, had to come up with his own ending, because he had no idea what conclusion Dickens was planning. Dickens was infuriated by the rampant plagiarism of his work, but the existing laws on copyright were of scant help.

Copyright law had existed in Britain since 1710, when the Statute of Anne had been passed. This had introduced, as a concept, the idea that the author of a work should own its copyright. It did not, however, give protection to an author as a matter of course, nor for works unfinished or unpublished. Eight decades later, the first copyright act was passed in the United States but it did little to help struggling writers whose work was being plagiarised or pirated. The Copyright Act of 1842 did not do as much as Dickens had hoped for but it did grant protection after an author’s death for the very first time. The Act decreed that copyright would last for either the author’s life plus seven years or for 42 years from the date of publication, whichever was longer. In the case of Sketches by Boz, Dickens’ first work of fiction, the copyright expired eight years after his death. Some Victorian authors were so desperate for money, they were persuaded to sell their copyright for a one-off payment from their publisher.

Some Victorian authors were so desperate for money, they were persuaded to sell their copyright for a one-off payment from their publisher.

When The Pickwick Papers  was completed in 1837, Dickens dedicated it to MP Thomas Noon Talfourd, who had attempted to get a copyright bill passed by Parliament. Although Talfourd was unsuccessful, Dickens used his novel’s final dedication to thank Talfourd, on behalf of all authors, for his efforts. When Dickens was writing David Copperfield (1850), his likeable and honourable character of Tommy Traddles was based on Thomas Noon Talfourd.

In Nicholas Nickleby  (1839), Dickens wrote in a humorous but heartfelt manner about the plight of writers whose work was pirated. In it, Nicholas is introduced to a playwright, “with a high eulogium upon his fame and reputation. ‘I am happy to know a gentleman of such great distinction,’ said Nicholas, politely. ‘Sir,’ replied the wit, ‘you’re very welcome, I’m sure. The honour is reciprocal, sir, as I usually say when I dramatise a book. Did you ever hear a definition of fame, sir?’ ‘I have heard several,’ replied Nicholas, with a smile. ‘What is yours?’ ‘When I dramatise a book, sir,’ said the literary gentleman, ‘That’s fame. For its author.’ (from Chapter 48 of Nicholas Nickleby).

Both Dickens and Talfourd continued to campaign for better copyright laws. By the early 1840s, Dickens was an international celebrity and, in 1842, he and his wife Catherine spent six months in the United States and Canada. Almost as soon as they arrived in Boston, Dickens began talking about copyright. He had arrived with A Letter to the American People co-signed by 12 eminent British authors, including Alfred Tennyson, Leigh Hunt and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It dealt with a subject close to Dickens’s heart: that pirated books were being sold in the US in their thousands, because there was no international copyright agreement. American authors were also infuriated that their own works were being overlooked, because publishers could copy and print one of Dickens’s novels more cheaply than they could a novel by an American writer entitled to royalties.

pirated books were being sold in the US in their thousands, because there was no international copyright agreement

On 7 Feb 1842, Charles Dickens’ 30th birthday, he spoke at a public banquet in Hartford, Connecticut. In his speech he cited Sir Walter Scott, partially attributing his death to his having been cheated out of money from pirated American sales. The media was incensed. The Hartford Times wrote bluntly, “It happens that we want no advice on this matter, and it will be better for Mr Dickens if he refrains from introducing the matter hereafter”. The Boston Morning Post stated: “You must drop that, Charlie, or you will be dished”. Dickens found American authors agreed with him, but would not air their views in public. He wrote in frustration to his friend John Forster, “The notion that I, a man alone by himself, in America, should venture to suggest to the Americans that there was one point on which they were neither just to their own countrymen, nor to us, actually struck the boldest dumb! Washington Irving, Prescott, Hoffman, Bryant, Helleck, Dana, Washington Allston – every man who writes in this country is devoted to the questions, and not one of them dares to raise his voice and complain of the atrocious state of the law….”.

In 1843 Dickens held a meeting for authors, publishers and printers, to discuss copyright abuses. It became known as the inaugural meeting of the Association for the Protection of Literature. Not all his fellow authors possessed his energy. On 18 May 1843, Thomas Carlyle wrote to Dickens:

“I think your Project looks, especially in your hands, much more feasible than the other did…. It is urgently desirable that “Authors,” or Persons who lead the Public Mind whatever title they may bear, should gradually form some kind of Brotherhood with one another, and become an organised Corporation … and in the present state of Authorship, perhaps the bringing of Authors together into a room, that they may occasionally look on one another and grow accustomed to one another, is almost all that can be done for that unfortunate class. I shall wish you heartily success in this adventure.”

“As for myself, I am so circumstanced in various respects I have found it unadvisable hitherto to become a member of any Club, reunion or general Assemblage of men whatsoever; my necessity is rather to live in the utmost quiet and solitude that is possible for me here.… I will wish you again all manner of success; and remain, as a spectator for the present.” The Association only lasted until 1849.

In 1843 Dickens held a meeting for authors, publishers and printers, to discuss copyright abuses. It became known as the inaugural meeting of the Association for the Protection of Literature

When Charles Dickens died on 9 June 1870, copyright law in Britain had remained unchanged since 1842; and the issue of international copyright remained resolved. It took another sixteen years but, on 9 September 1886, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works finally recognised the need for an international copyright protection (between member states). It also abolished the earlier need for an artist or writer to register each work formally and allowed authors and artists with unfinished or unpublished pieces to be granted automatic ownership of their work. The Berne Convention took place forty-four years after Dickens’s explosive visit to America but it was a direct result of his campaigning zeal and the publicity that had surrounded his impassioned fight for the creation of an international copyright law.

Lucinda Hawksley’s books include biographies of three female artists, Lizzie Siddal, Kate Perugini (née Dickens) and Princess Louise. She has also written books on Charles Dickens, art history, literature, London, Victorian Britain and social history. Her recent titles include March, Women, March, about the women’s movement in Britain, and Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, a history of facial hair in portraiture. Lucinda is a patron of the Charles Dickens Museum in London and a great great great granddaughter of Charles and Catherine Dickens.