HC Deb 20 March 1838 vol 41 cc1095-108
Mr. Poulett Thomson

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to establish a system of international copyright, and said, that in introducing this measure to the House he thought it right to say something with regard to the objects which he proposed to effect. It was not his intention in this Bill to enter at all into the question of copyright at home, an hon. and learned Friend of his having already obtained leave to bring in a Bill upon that subject. Whether it might be, in the opinion of the House, advisable to extend copyright to the number of years which his hon. Friend suggested, was a proposition to which he desired to be understood as giving then neither assent nor dissent. He would leave that question altogether untouched; his present object being simply to give to foreigners for their works in this country that protection with regard to copyright which English authors in return might be enabled to obtain for their works in foreign countries. He did not think that there was a single individual who would be inclined to dispute that this was a just and an equitable principle. He did not think that any man was disposed to deny, that literary works of genius ought to meet with a similar protection in this country to that which was extended to works of genius of another class. He alluded to the works of individuals engaged in industrious or mechanical pursuits, which in this country were already protected by our laws. It was clearly desirable to obtain for our authors that protection abroad which could already be obtained for works of a different description. Nothing appeared to him to be more urgent than the circumstances in which authors were placed, considered as British subjects, compared with those who were engaged in other pursuits demanding the exercise of the inventive faculty. If any man turned his attention to any department of mechanical science, and by the force of genius and intelligence succeeded in inventing a machine capable of being beneficially applied to the purposes of trade or manufactures, to the promotion of industry, or the diminution of manual labour, it was in the power of such an individual, in whatever part of the world he might have made the discovery, to come to this country and take advantage of our patent laws, to secure to himself the exclusive privilege of profiting by that invention for a certain number of years. In the same way, if a native of this country, by the exertion of talent and industry, succeeded in inventing a machine, or making any useful discovery, it was in his power to go abroad and there reap the fruits of his discovery, all the advantages of which would be secured to him by the concession of a similar patent. But this was not the case with those who, devoting their time to literature, laboured alike for our amuse- ment and instruction, with those who conferred by their works the greatest benefit on mankind. This was, he contended, a state of things which it behoved them to remedy as speedily as possible, and it was with this view that he proposed the present measure. It was not his intention to weary the House by dwelling on the practical inconveniences to which authors were subjected by the present state of the law. But, at the same time, in introducing this measure there were one or two examples which he was desirous to state to the House, first to show the injustice to which the existing state of the law subjected authors in this country; and next to show how injuriously it affected the interests of literature generally. It was matter of notoriety that works were pirated abroad as soon as they made their appearance at home: that no sooner were productions sent to the press in this country, than the utmost efforts were exerted to purloin proof-sheets for the purpose of sending them to America, France, Belgium, or Germany. Pirated editions were published at once in those countries and circulated over those countries forthwith, by which means the authors were deprived of the fair fruits of their labour—of those legitimate pecuniary rewards for which they were reasonably entitled to look. It was equally well known that the same system of piracy existed with regard to the works of authors in foreign countries; and that a work was no sooner published in France than proof-sheets were despatched to Belgium, where a pirated edition was immediately brought out, with which the English and foreign markets were at once inundated; and thus the foreign author was equally deprived of his fair and legitimate expectations of remuneration. He would take an instance of a work of light reading. He found upon inquiry that of the work of Travels in America, by Mrs. Trollope, no less than 15,000 copies had been printed in Paris, without the slightest benefit to the author, either in their sale or in that of the copyright. He might cite instances of the same description in the works of Mr. Bulwer; but he would turn to works of greater importance—those of science, in reference to which this Bill was particularly necessary. There was Dr. Arnott's Elements of Physical Science, a work of the greatest labour and pains, and for which everybody would admit the author was entitled to all the advantages the sale of copyright could bring him; and yet he (Mr. P. Thomson) had been informed, that there was not a, village of 2,000 inhabitants in the United States in which several copies of a pirated edition were not to be found, for which the author never received one farthing, simply because there was no way of protecting the copyright. He might also instance Dr. Webster's Dictionary, which was published in the United States, and immediately pirated in England, for which editions the author received no remuneration whatever, although a vast number of it was sold; and Dr. Richardson's Dictionary, published in England and pirated in the United States, both works of great labour, merit, and expense, a single number costing, he believed, three or four guineas. Thus, in one case, the American work was sold so cheap here, that it was superseded by the English edition, and in the other the English work was sold so cheap in the United States, that it was entirely superseded by the American edition. The principal cause of this evil was, that no sooner were works in the press, than attempts were made through the means of bribery, sometimes to a considerable amount, to obtain copies of them from persons engaged in the printing department, for the purpose of having them pirated in another country. One of the last of Sir Walter Scott's works had actually been purloined in sheets here, and published in the United States before it was published in London. It was pirated and sent to France in the same way, and published there also before the London edition appeared. These were facts which showed that it was absolutely necessary, in justice to our own authors and to those of foreign countries, that some check should be put to the present system. Why should they afford protection to works of industry and art, and refuse it to works of genius, devoted to literary and scientific pursuits? Their doing so would not be only unjust towards the authors, but directly against our own interest. America, and many of the European States, had turned their attention to the subject of late. In France and Germany commissioners had been appointed upon the law of copyright, and in the United States a committee of inquiry. The commissioners in France and Germany said, that they felt the inconvenience arising from the publication of their works in other countries, but that while they sought to protect their own authors, they should also afford protection to foreign authors. Therefore, in order to obtain protection for ourselves abroad, it was necessary to hold out the prospect of protection in this country to the authors of other countries. The mode of doing this was not very simple. It would not do, in his opinion, to pass one general law, based upon the principle of our own law of copyright, because the law of copyright varied so much in different countries. In France, for instance, it was limited for a certain period; in Germany it was also limited, and for different periods; at Frankfort to ten years, and in Prussia to thirty: and in the United States it was limited to a much less period. What he proposed then by this Bill was to empower the Crown, by treaty with foreign states, to grant to foreign authors the same degree of protection and for the same number of years, that those states were willing to afford by treaty to our authors. That was to say, supposing a treaty to be made with France, by which mutual protection to copyright was afforded for a period of twenty years, it would be competent for the Crown, acting of course by the Privy Council, to take steps against the surreptitious introduction of editions of foreign works published in violation of the copyright. After consulting the opinions of many competent judges, that appeared to him to be the best principle upon which to proceed. The moment the Bill passed, they would endeavour, by convention with other countries, to adopt the principle of reciprocal copyright. Communications were already being made on the subject, and he thought, when they should have the power of carrying the machinery of this Bill into effect, they would not find much difficulty in concluding arrangements under it with foreign states. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to provide for international copyright.

Mr. Milnes

thought the measure of the right hon. Gentleman might be easily carried into operation with countries with which our relations were very clear and simple—such as America; but he doubted the possibility of its operation with European countries, because, by any such agreement as it proposed, we should be greatly the gainers, and it would consequently be very difficult, if indeed possible, to induce them to submit to the terms of the proposal. Everybody knew that the circulation of English books in France was much more extensive than that of French books in England, and it was very unlikely, therefore, that any such agreement, an agreement which, would, undoubtedly be most unpopular with the book trade in Paris, would be entered into by the French government. He was of opinion that the experiment should be first made with some such country as America, because there, there would be comparatively no difficulty to contend with.

Sir R. Inglis

said, that whatever might be the relative claims for protection of mechanical and literary pursuits, he was of opinion that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would find it extremely difficult to carry this measure into effect. He thought the more obvious course would have been to have asked other countries to pass in their respective legislatures, bills of an analogous nature before they proceeded upon a general principle, which left the reciprocity all on one side. The cases of piracy mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman might have been provided against by a course which Sir Walter Scott had himself adopted with his Life of Napoleon. He sent it over himself in sheets to Germany and France, and thus protected the copyright of the work in this country. That course was still open to authors. Nothing but an interest, which the right hon. Gentleman had not shown, would induce the governments of France, Germany, and the United States, to concur in the arrangement proposed by this bill. He readily admitted that the subject was a good one, and that they ought, as far as possible, to afford that protection to indigenous authors which for many years they were deprived of by foreign countries; but he was of opinion that the right hon. Gentleman by this bill would involve himself in a series of difficulties from which it would be no easy matter to get free. The right hon. Gentleman should have first represented, by the ordinary course of communication with foreign states, the feelings of her Majesty's Government on the subject.

Lord John Russell

thought, that the hon. Gentleman opposite had taken a mistaken view of the question. Surely France would be greatly benefitted, if the introduction into this country of the works of her authors, printed in Brussels, were prohibited; while, on the other hand, it would be a very great advantage to us, to have a stop put to the publishing in France of pirated editions of English works. His hon. Friend (Sir R. Inglis) objected to the introduction of this measure, without having first negociated on the subject with other countries; but until they adopted some such measure, they would have nothing to offer, and it was much more probable, that their negotiations would be attended with success if they were enabled to show that they had something to give in return. This bill, he trusted, would have the effect of preventting piracy, at all events in France, Germany, and America. It had been stated that Sir Walter Scott took measures to prevent his privilege of copyright from being interfered with in France, and that the same means of precaution were open to every other author; but what were the means that that celebrated individual had adopted? He was merely in the habit of sending over proof sheets, so as to secure the sale of one impression at all events; thus his edition entered the French market sooner than that of a publisher, who had to wait till a perfect copy could be procured from England. He need scarcely observe, that this was an advantage so trifling as not materially to affect the argument. Sir Walter Scott possessed no other advantage.

Lord Mahon

said, he was very glad to find that the attention of her Majesty's Government had been drawn to the subject, for it was one of very great importance, not only as regarded the interests of authors, but those of the public. One example he would mention to illustrate the extent to which the feelings, reputation, and property, of authors were affected by the present state of the law. There was, as probably many Members knew, a continuation of Sir James Mackintosh's historical work, which proved very inferior to the original both in style and sentiment. The whole work, or rather the two works, commencement and continuation, were published in France, the fact being suppressed that the latter part was by another and an inferior hand. The practical question, however, now before the House was this—how could redress be obtained? It appeared to him that the difficulty lay much more in negotiation with foreign states, than in legislation in that House; he regretted, therefore, that the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was not then in his place, in order that the House might be informed if any negotiations respecting this subject had taken place with the United States of America. He repeated his apprehension that there would be great difficulty in negociating with foreign powers on a matter of this nature. How, for example, did they propose to manage with Switzerland? If upon the principle of a quid pro quo, it must fail, for the simple reason, that there were no Swiss books published in England, and therefore we had nothing from which to abstain that could make our abstinence a compensation to the Swiss. The fact was, that Switzerland was a country peculiarly barren in literature, and let hon. Members recollect, that in proportion as they diminished piracy at Paris and Brussels, they gave it encouragement at Geneva or at Berne, unless previous negotiations with Switzerland gave protection to English books, and of this he hardly entertained a hope. He apprehended, also, that with Germany the difficulty would be considerable, much greater than the right hon. Gentleman opposite; expected. He believed, that amongst the German States themselves there was no international copyright; they had no agreement amongst themselves, and how could they be expected to enter into conventions with other countries? If Austria, Bavaria, and Prussia had each a law of copyright different from the others—if they felt so slight an interest in the matter that they could come to no agreement with each other, what chance was there that they would make a sacrifice to protect themselves from so distant a danger as that some German works might be published in England? These, he observed, were a few of the practical difficulties which suggested themselves to his mind, but he did not state them with any feeling of hostility towards the bill; quite the contrary; he should be most happy to give it his support if, on perusal, he could consistently do so; in the meanwhile, he wished to obtain all the information he could as to the state of the negotiations on the subject.

Mr. Warburton

observed, that though he had heard so much about the interests of authors, he still could not help recollecting that there was a reading public, and that the diffusion of cheap editions of good books was one of the greatest public benefits that could be conferred. The effect of smuggling was to prevent the manufacturer from setting too high a price upon his goods. By these measures of extreme protection the publisher would be tempted to set too high a price upon his books; he thought, therefore, that so serious an interference with the interests of the public ought not to be hazarded without a very minute and ample inquiry. He confessed he saw as many practical difficulties in the proposed arrangement as did the noble Lord opposite. He would ask, how did they propose to look after all the pirated editions? Would they search the baggage of every traveller to see what books he was bringing home for his own use or that of his friends? He was by no means clear that the House had a right to pass such a bill, at the same time that he was not then prepared to oppose its mere introduction. In the absence of the hon. and learned Member for Reading, he should wish to avoid making any observations upon his intended measure, but he understood that he proposed to carry the rights of authorship far beyond anything that had ever before been known. Supposing that measure carried, surely it would not be just to give to foreign publishers increased advantages not previously enjoyed by our own authors. According to his understanding of the measure now before the House, it would give to foreigners rights not yet enjoyed by Englishmen. It was his deliberate opinion, that if advantages of that sort were extended to French books, it would be a great injury to the reading public of England.

Mr. Goulburn

confessed, that he felt considerable difficulty as to the mode in which the objects of the bill were to be carried out; and one of the points which struck him the most forcibly was the question whether, in the event of England binding itself by means of a convention with France, that country was to be bound not to receive books from Belgium, the copyrights of which belonged to England, but which had been improperly printed elsewhere, and also whether England was to bind itself to receive no French books, unless from France itself. That was one of the greatest difficulties which suggested itself to his mind, for those who, for the benefit of their own trade, pirated the works of others, would take care to mark the work which they published with the name of the country from which it originally proceeded, so that the whole work would bear the strongest resemblance to the originals and the greatest difficulty would be found in distinguishing the spurious from the genuine editions. With respect to the United States, he felt that a question would arise as to how far the Government of that country would feel itself empowered to introduce any law by which a custom which had existed so long would be restrained or removed. In this country the Acts of Parliament were necessarily binding on all parties, but how far Congress could pass a law which should bind all the states, was a matter which must be considered. It would be unjust that this country should bind itself to adopt and carry out any principle of this kind, except on a system of reciprocity, and that system must therefore he established to the fullest extent before any engagement was entered into. Another point presented itself to his mind, and on which the right hon. Gentleman had not explained his views—he meant that of the publication of translations of works which should appear in either country. Now, he apprehended that the law would not include cases of this description. The translator having expended his time and his labour, and his talents in the work of translation, it would be unjust that he should not be paid; but, at the same time, to permit the publication of translations would be unjust to the original inventor of the work, and it was apparent that his interests would be materially affected by means of the translation. He had paid some attention to these few points, and he confessed that he was of opinion, that some difficulty would be found in giving effect to the law. He begged, however, to suggest, that care should be taken in attempting to get rid of these difficulties, that no provision should be made dangerous to authors, and which might turn out to be inoperative.

Mr. Wakley

was of opinion, that such a measure as the present should be preceded by the fullest and most ample inquiry before it was adopted. He should like to learn what literary man had ever lost anything, or had complained that his interests had suffered, by his works having been pirated. When any person wrote a book, he wrote it for the English people, and for the purposes of his country, and he never reflected on what might be effected by its being published in a foreign country. Dr. Arnott was a man who had written many excellent works which had been widely read through England, Ireland, and Scotland, and which had since found their way into the United States. He should like to have him before a Committee, in order that he might be asked in what light he regarded the publication of his works in America, and he knew that he was the last man who would make any complaint upon the subject; for he was sure that the additional fame which he obtained by his works being widely known would do much in favour of any which he might subsequently publish, and would, therefore, increase his profit and reward. The same rule would apply to all cases; and he would ask, from what circumstances did the necessity for the present measure proceed at all? He must repeat his anxious desire that the right hon. Gentleman would not object to the subject being thoroughly investigated by a Committee before the bill was adopted by the House.

Mr. Wynn

would offer a few observations to the House upon the subject of this bill. With regard to the suggestions which had fallen from the hon. Member for Bridport, that all the labour of the author, and the expense of the original publication of a work ought not to be considered, but that the advantage of the public was alone to be regarded, he must say, that if that were acted upon, all copyright would be at an end. No reward would be afforded to the author, and all books which were published might be obtained after a short delay, at a price giving a fair profit on the expense of printing and paper. However favourable he might be to the principle of the bill of the right hon. Gentleman, he could not but think that the difficulties which would present themselves to its being carried fairly into execution would be very great. Whatever treaty might be entered into between England and France, Belgium might print the books so like the originals as to defy all attempts to discover the difference, and he hardly knew how this was to be remedied. It was true this precise species of imitation was not now carried on; but then the necessity for it did not exist, for there was no international copyright. As an instance of the success with which the practice might be adopted, he would mention the case of The Edinburgh Review, which was now printed at Paris, by Messrs. Galignani, who, however, it was true, attached his own name to it, and so strongly resembled the original, that except on reference to the title-page, the distinction would not be discovered. At the same time he was most ready and willing to vote the experiment be tried, hoping for a successful result. At the same time he must repeat that he was afraid the scheme would prove impracticable or at least fruitless. With regard to the question of the translation of works, he must confess that he should not like to see any law introduced which would fetter the transmission of literature and of discoveries in science from one country to another; but of course some specific regulation on this subject would form one of the details of the bill.

Mr. Hume

agreed with the hon. Member for Bridport in the arguments which he had advanced, that the interests of the public should be considered rather than those of one individual. The public had already benefitted much by the introduction of cheap copies of various works in recent years, and he would ask the House how these cheap publications had been produced? Formerly whenever a person went to the Continent he was in the habit of bringing home with him a number of their piracies upon English works, but it was now found that those copies were incorrect; and, in consequence, publications equally cheap had been introduced into England. Added to this, however, there were certain matters in the book trade and in the mode in which it was conducted which must be inquired into before any means could be adopted to remedy the defects in the law of international copyright. He should be happy to see a bill passed which would give individuals everything to which they were entitled: but the injustice which might be done to society at large must be considered before any such bill was agreed to. Difficulties had been stated which, he thought, it would be impossible to remedy. He should be glad if means could be taken to remove them, but he had no idea that it was possible.

Mr. Poulelt Thomson

, in reply, admitted, that the subject was attended with great difficulties, but he had felt it his duty to endeavour to grapple with them. If those difficulties were found to be insuperable, his Bill would not possibly do any harm, for it would only become a dead letter; but it was only by a bill of this kind, that we could be put in a position to endeavour to overcome the difficulties in question. He confessed that he anticipated more difficulty from the United States than from any other country; but with reference to what had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for the University of Cambridge, that the Government could not make any regulation as to copyrights which would extend to all the states, he would state that the power was specially reserved to the Government, and was not left in the hands of the states. Therefore, if the United States pleased to enter into any arrangement on the subject, it was perfectly competent for them to do so. With regard to the difficulties suggested in the case of Germany, he would state that last autumn, at a Diet held at Frankfort, the subject was referred to, and a law was passed for the Government of the German states, by which a law of general copyright was adopted, and articles were passed in order to enable the Governments to enter into a treaty with foreign powers, and especially with England, on the subject of international copyright. There was reason to believe, therefore, that in France and Germany the plan proposed would be successful. It would be exceedingly desirable that arrangements should first be made with two or three states, in order that others might then view the advantages to be derived from the measure.

Leave given.