Behind the Scenes

Dispatches From Book Leave, Part 1

Slate’s Justin Peters’ updates on writing The Idealists, his book about Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz.

Long before Aaron Swartz waded into the debate, the likes of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were fighting in the copyright wars.

Photo by Noah Berger/Reuters.

Slate correspondent Justin Peters is on leave this year while he writes a book based on his February 2013 Slate profile of the Internet activist Aaron Swartz. He has been sending regular progress reports to friends, family, readers, and others interested in getting an inside look at the book-writing process. Here’s the first installment of his updates, sent in January.

Hi, everyone,

Justin Peters here. If you’re getting this email, you’ve expressed interest in receiving periodic updates on the status of the book I’m writing. The book’s about the life and death of the Internet prodigy Aaron Swartz, but it’s also about intellectual property, online activism, free culture, the rise and fall of the public domain over the years, the historical antecedents of modern copyright legislation, and so on. You know, “Movie of the Week” stuff.

Anyway, it’s not entirely accurate to say I’m “writing” the book at this point. I’ve got a pretty substantial outline, and a few thousand uninspiring words on the origins of copyright, but for the past month I’ve been spending most of my time immersed in historical research on bygone copyright statutes. This is actually a lot more interesting than it sounds. (Well, a little more interesting than it sounds.) Though the first American national copyright law was passed in 1790—in part thanks to the efforts of Noah Webster, the weird, self-promoting lexicographer who would top any list of the Most Obnoxious Founding Fathers—literary copyright didn’t really become a truly divisive issue until halfway through the 19th century. From the authors and publishers lobbying for enhanced copyright protections, to “literary pirates” content to leave things as they were, the 19th- and early-20th-century copyright debates inflamed a lot of passions in America and elsewhere, and inspired a lot of comically overheated political rhetoric on both sides.

The more-than-50-year struggle for international copyright in the United States is particularly riveting, if, like me, you often find yourself riveted by centuries-old policy debates that nobody remembers. For a century after America was founded, foreign authors had no copyright protections in America, which meant that domestic publishers were free to reprint their works at no expense. Plenty of “pirate” publishers took full advantage of this loophole, much to the consternation of overseas authors who were condescendingly told that the fame they derived from their work’s dissemination should be payment enough for them. (Charles Dickens came to the U.S. in 1842 and spent his entire visit loudly complaining about how he was being ripped off by the American publishing industry. “I vow before high heaven that my blood boils at these enormities so that when I speak of them I seem to grow twenty feet high, and to swell out in proportion,” he wrote at the time. DICKENS SMASH!)

But foreign authors weren’t the only ones getting jobbed. Given the abysmal state of American copyright laws, other countries felt little need to respect American copyrights, and, consequently, American authors were routinely pirated themselves by overseas publishers. Not that there were all that many American authors at the time, anyway. Since domestic publishers could reprint foreigners’ works for free, they had little incentive to take chances on unknown domestic writers, to whom they would have to pay money. This ended up inhibiting the growth of a national literary culture in America—or, at least, that was the argument of the American authors and publishers who tirelessly lobbied Congress for more, stricter copyright laws.

And that’s how international copyright was eventually passed in America: lots of East Coast literary types ended up banding together and forming various “copyright clubs” that lobbied Congress for decades until international copyright went through in 1891. (I am greatly oversimplifying this here; if you want the whole story, buy my book!) The key figures here were George P. Putnam and his son, George H. Putnam, plodding albeit respectable New York publishers who worked on and off for international copyright for more than 50 years. The best-remembered of the copyright warriors is probably Mark Twain, who spent decades writing, speaking, and testifying in favor of reform laws, and who more than once actually took the floor of Congress and lobbied representatives in person. (Perhaps Twain wouldn’t have needed his overseas royalties so bad if he hadn’t blown so much of his money on ludicrous get-rich-quick schemes.) My favorite of the copyright advocates is probably a guy named Richard Watson Gilder, a magazine editor who swore that he had no personal stake in the fight, and was only in it for purely altruistic reasons. He was probably telling the truth, too. “So far as I know my enthusiasm for the cause is entirely on account of its moral and patriotic bearings,” he wrote to Senator W.C.P. Breckinridge in 1888. “It is to me an unendurable national disgrace that America should stand out against all the world as a nation of literary thieves.” Truly, that is the worst thing that could ever be said about America.

Several things about this debate strike me as interesting (and I’m not forgetting the debate over the 1909 Copyright Act, which is no less fascinating than its predecessor, and which also features several amusing cameos from beloved bandleader John Philip Sousa, composer of “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” who gravely informed the members of the Joint Committee on Patents that “the vocal chords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape”), but especially the way that the copyright debate was inevitably framed in moral terms. I’ve got a lot to say about this topic (buy my book! buy my book!), but one notable aspect is the way that Copyright League members convinced ministers across America to devote their Sunday sermons to the evils of literary piracy. Take the Rev. Henry Van Dyke, who, in 1888, preached that copyright infringement “is a subject in regard to which the pulpit has many reasons for speech, and no apology for silence.” (First they came for Charles Dickens, and I said nothing … ) Copyright was rarely discussed primarily as a question of public policy, but instead as one of moral necessity. More than 120 years later, with Internet IP “thieves” and “pirates” routinely excoriated (and worse) by copyright holders and media companies, the tone of the debate has hardly changed.

You can’t understand the present without understanding the past—or at least I can’t—and so I’m trying to read as much as I can about these 19th-century copyright champions, going through as much primary source material as I can find, and also reading biographies, academic analyses, and other secondary material. If you’re looking to do some reading yourself, which you almost certainly are not, I would start with The Movement for International Copyright in America, an invaluable and absorbing 1960 dissertation by a Catholic priest named Aubert J. Clark, and then move on to the tremendously boring but nevertheless useful 1891 essay compilation The Question of Copyright, edited by the tremendously boring but nevertheless useful George H. Putnam. If you want a taste of the copyright opponents’ point of view, you could track down the facile volume Letters on International Copyright, written in 1853 by economist Henry C. Carey, son of one of the country’s foremost pirate publishers. (Much of this stuff is available online at But my reading is almost finished, and this week I’m going to start putting words on paper, and then I’ll edit, revise, improve, and trim that inevitably terrible first draft until I’ve got something workable. It’s a lot of fun! And also horribly stressful and difficult!

Anyway. That’s what I’ve been up to! Thanks for reading this, and for your continued interest in the book, in the topics at hand, and in yours truly. Talk to you sometime later this month.


Click here to read Dispatches From Book Leave, Part 2.