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Literary Copyright
by [?]

The chief concern of the National Institute is with the production of works of art and of literature, and with their distribution. In the remarks following I shall confine myself to the production and distribution of literature. In the limits of this brief address I can only in outline speak of certain tendencies and practices which are affecting this production and this distribution. The interests involved are, first, those of the author; second, those of the publisher; third, those of the public. As to all good literature, the interests of these three are identical if the relations of the three are on the proper basis. For the author, a good book is of more pecuniary value than a poor one, setting aside the question of fame; to the publisher, the right of publishing a good book is solid capital,–an established house, in the long run, makes more money on “Standards” than on “Catchpennies”; and to the public the possession of the best literature is the breath of life, as that of the bad and mediocre is moral and intellectual decadence. But in practice the interests of the three do not harmonize. The author, even supposing his efforts are stimulated by the highest aspirations for excellence and not by any commercial instinct, is compelled by his circumstances to get the best price for his production; the publisher wishes to get the utmost return for his capital and his energy; and the public wants the best going for the least money.

Consider first the author, and I mean the author, and not the mere craftsman who manufactures books for a recognized market. His sole capital is his talent. His brain may be likened to a mine, gold, silver, copper, iron, or tin, which looks like silver when new. Whatever it is, the vein of valuable ore is limited, in most cases it is slight. When it is worked out, the man is at the end of his resources. Has he expended or produced capital? I say he has produced it, and contributed to the wealth of the world, and that he is as truly entitled to the usufruct of it as the miner who takes gold or silver out of the earth. For how long? I will speak of that later on. The copyright of a book is not analogous to the patent right of an invention, which may become of universal necessity to the world. Nor should the greater share of this usufruct be absorbed by the manufacturer and publisher of the book. The publisher has a clear right to guard himself against risks, as he has the right of refusal to assume them. But there is an injustice somewhere, when for many a book, valued and even profitable to somebody, the author does not receive the price of a laborer’s day wages for the time spent on it–to say nothing of the long years of its gestation.

The relation between author and publisher ought to be neither complicated nor peculiar. The author may sell his product outright, or he may sell himself by an agreement similar to that which an employee in a manufacturing establishment makes with his master to give to the establishment all his inventions. Either of these methods is fair and businesslike, though it may not be wise. A method that prevailed in the early years of this century was both fair and wise. The author agreed that the publisher should have the exclusive right to publish his book for a certain term, or to make and sell a certain number of copies. When those conditions were fulfilled, the control of the property reverted to the author. The continuance of these relations between the two depended, as it should depend, upon mutual advantage and mutual good-will. By the present common method the author makes over the use of his property to the will of the publisher. It is true that he parts with the use only of the property and not with the property itself, and the publisher in law acquires no other title, nor does he acquire any sort of interest in the future products of the author’s brain. But the author loses all control of his property, and its profit to him may depend upon his continuing to make over his books to the same publisher. In this continuance he is liable to the temptation to work for a market, instead of following the free impulses of his own genius. As to any special book, the publisher is the sole judge whether to push it or to let it sink into the stagnation of unadvertised goods.