Your Bull has Gored my Ox, The Corsair, NY, June 8, 1839.

… But has an author any actual indefeasible property in his works?

“Certainly not! it is merely a temporary usufruct which the law allows him!”

Such will be the answer of ninety-nine men out of a hundred to whom you put the question. They would have answered so fifty years ago. They will answer the same way fifty years hence, unless they are addressed upon the subject in the only mode to make them think upon it. The rights of authors, as now acknowledged, stand separate and apart from those of other men; and the community never will care a copper for their assertion, till compelled by sympathy of interest to think and act upon the subject. The matter of copyright must be taken from the narrow limits in which the mere lawyer would confine it, and placed upon the broad field where the moralist and the statesman will be forced to study it; it must be made to stand where it belongs—upon the basis by which the cause of PROPERTY is upheld in civilized communities! It must be shown, as it can be shown, that every argument against the author’s right of property in his productions, apply equally to the merchant and the land-holder—apply to all who are defended in their possessions by legal enactments made for the good of society. The moralist, who indignantly kindles at the fanatic dreams of Agrarianism, yet turns a cold and indifferent eye upon the author’s interest in property, must be driven to feel the force of His claim by examining the tenure by which the possessions of other members of the community are held. The statesman, who values the artificial substitute of written statutes for the natural law of the strong, must have his eyes opened to the danger of leaving a large class of those for whom he legislates, undefended in their property, save by the powers which nature may have given them.

The law of copyright, as it stands upon our statute-books, is an anomaly in the structure of society as at present constituted. It is a hybrid monster conceived in the spirit of barbarism, and brought into being amid the most cunning wiles of civilized despotism. Its conception refers to the rude times, when a man’s acknowledged possessions consisted only of those things which he actually produced by manual labor; its existence dates from an age when the aristocratic classes hesitated at no means to keep knowledge from the people, and therefore framed laws whose tendency would be to make writers, as a class, dependent upon themselves.

“Political truths are but slow in making themselves known to the world. Those who write in advance of the opinions of men must wait long for the returns, whether of wealth or glory, from their productions. By cutting off” they argued “an author from prospective benefit from his writings at some remote period, we deter the man of slender means from wasting the prime of his life in a pursuit that must be profitless; but we still leave encouragement for the writer who courts the taste and prejudices of the day, and is willing to become tributary to our patronage.”

It were an easy task to show how effective has been this policy in chaining the most vigorous minds of modern times to the footstool of power—to show how often genius has been perverted from its best and noblest ends, by making it dependent upon the patronage of the opulent few—how, robbed of the just and permanent fruits of his industry, the author has been compelled to snatch at such as were within his reach, by ministering to the caprices, or upholding the privileges of the class to whom he was thus driven to look for his bread. But the day is at hand, thank God, when thinking men will be compelled to look into this matter, and weigh well the expediency of perpetuating such monstrous injustice. The author is no longer in the situation of the court-jester or buffoon, who lives upon the bounty of some wealthy patrician. There are readers enough in every class for him to appeal to in the assertion of his rights, and it is for every man who has an interest at stake in the community, to pause and reflect how far it will be well to shut out an influential portion of his fellow citizens from the shelter of the laws protecting property when honestly acquired.

1 Comment

  1. An excerpt that transcends time. Note the reference to “piratical law of the land” in the paragraph prior to your excerpt.

    I couldn’t find any information on the “alleged disingenuous conduct” of Captain Frederick Marryat. Would be interested to know what happened.

    Also prophetic that the author of the article has been “cut off from prospective benefits from his writings” now when his criticism of current popular negative attitude towards copyright law is most welcome.