HC Deb 06 May 1915 vol 71 cc1331-8

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

I think the House will desire that in asking it to give a Second Reading to this Bill I should address myself to the point whether the Government is justified in placing a Bill of this kind at this time before the House. I am very glad to see present so many guardians of the rights of private Members. I will explain my point as briefly as I can. The governing words on which we claim we are justified in bringing in this Bill were those uttered by the Prime Minister at the beginning of the Session, when he asked private Members to assent to certain limitations and curtailments of their usual opportunities. The right hon. Gentleman said:— The Government are asking private Members to give up their usual opportunities, but in return private Members are entitled to demand from the Government—and the demand is a perfectly reasonable one—that so long as this order is in force they will introduce no legislation of a party or contentious character and that they will indeed confine, as we propose to confine, their legislative proposals, unless in some exceptional case in regard to which there is general agreement to such measures as may Vie found necessary to facilitate, financially or otherwise, the successful prosecution of the "War. If I cannot justify the Bill as falling within those words of the Prime Minister, I should not be justified in asking the House to proceed with it. I think it can be said, first of all, that it will assist the State, financially or otherwise, towards the successful prosecution of the War, to pass the Bill. But if that view is not accepted, then I think it may be regarded as an exceptional case in regard to which there is general agreement. I have arranged that a very full Memorandum should be prefixed to the Bill, explaining what it is intended to do. The House will see that under a Section of the Copyright Act an advertisement is held to be included in the definition of a book as contained in that Act, and, therefore, advertisers are entitled under the Act to send to the British Museum all their advertisements, or labels, or other things which they affix to their goods, and to require in each case a written receipt signed by the head of the department for each such advertisement so sent. Whatever may be the rights or wrongs of the question as to whether publishers of advertisements have a right to require that they shall in some way be registered, I think there can be no doubt that the British Museum is not the right place for registration, or the proper body upon which to put the burden of making it. The extent to which this right of sending advertisements and labels has been exercised is not very great so far, but there is one firm which has stated that it will send 10,000 advertisements per year, each to be separately acknowledged, entered, and stored, and if other firms should act in a like manner, and it is quite possible—if there is some possible ghost of a point in sending advertisements to be registered in this way—then many other firms may act similarly, and, instead of merely one firm sending 10,000 advertisements per year, we may have dozens or scores of firms doing the same thing.

The question of accommodation and space at the British Museum is naturally a very important one, and the authorities of the museum represent, no doubt with perfect truth, that if they have to store all this mass of absolutely useless material they will require further space. Space costs money, and the site of the British Museum is a very costly one. I think it is justifiable to ask the House that the museum should be saved from the necessity of perhaps having to provide extra accommodation on its present site, especially as it would involve employment of much labour and very great expense in this period of war. Apart from having to provide special buildings at considerable expense, the museum authorities ought to be spared the labour of the clerks in receiving and separately acknowledging all these advertisements. We shall be glad of the criticisms of hon. Members on the question whether it is justifiable now to bring in a Bill of this kind. The statement of the Prime Minister was fully and formally laid before the Government, and they decided that it was so. They thought the Bill came within the Prime Minister's statement, and they hope the House will so regard it. They hope, at any rate, that, in the words of the Prime Minister, the House will regard this matter as an exceptional case in reference to which there is general agreement.


This Copyright Act was passed by the present Government in 1911 with considerable amendment. I was a rather stout opponent of it, and considerable concessions were made, and one point on which I had down an Amendment dealt with this particular matter. But Ministers, in their usual lordly way, waived my objections aside and passed the ridiculous provision that every advertisement and label shall be sent to the British Museum. It was not a preceding Government that did this, it was the existing Government, and they did it in spite of all warning. Indeed, they went to the Selection Committee in order to keep me off the Committee because they feared that I might be successful in forcing such rubbish out. I am not often in favour of legislation, but I do like Bills which repeal stupid legislation, such as Governments will sometimes pass. The House will probably gather from the rather apologetic speech of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that it is a little difficult to justify this as a War measure. It certainly will not be able to look upon it as a missile against Admiral von Tirpitz or the Crown Prince of Bavaria, and it is about as far away from fighting in the trenches as one can possibly get. I am glad to see present one of the trustees of the British Museum. I want to put this specific question to him: Is this one of the general Departmental Bills they bring in when the Department finds the occasion opportune? The offices at Whitehall are full of such Bills, and they generally mean a little more power to the officials and a little less to the general public. If the necessity for this Bill is due to an emergency springing up during this War period, we may go some way to meet the Government. But if it is not, if it has been in the pigeon-holes of the office for several years—as, indeed, I think it should have been—then it is a breach of the Prime Minister's pledge.

I do not object to legislation of this kind. By all means bring the Bill in and let the House sit and do its duty. Hon. Members are drawing their full pay of £400. Let them attend to their duty properly. When the bargain was made private Members were robbed of all their rights. As I understood it, the bargain was that the House should not have its attention diverted from the great War. We responded to that appeal. Therefore, private Members were not to bring in Bills on a Friday, or to move Resolutions on other evenings, as was customary under the Rules of the House, because, however good their intentions were, they might be diverting the attention of the House from the War, and might, for instance, bring in Bills dealing with the drink traffic, and matters of that kind, which have nothing to do with the War. There was to be no more temperance legislation or any Sunday Closing Bill, because the Government had to set its mind on the War with Germany. I was not in favour of the bargain. I should have preferred that the House of Commons should have gone on to a greater extent with its usual procedure. But we bowed down to the omnipotence of the Government. Therefore, I ask, in order to comply with that procedure, the right hon. Gentleman, who, I believe, is one of the trustees of the British Museum, to assure us that this is a sudden trouble sprung upon them while the nation is at War. If that be so, I can quite see that putting up buildings and employing labour in erecting extra storage accommodation for rubbish of this description is not a suitable thing to do during the War. Only a statement of that kind can possibly justify this Bill as coming within the Prime Minister's statement, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he can give us that assurance?

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Harcourt)

If the late Sir William Anson had been still happily here he would now be representing the trustees of the British Museum, as he did for many years. I speak only in my capacity as a trustee of the British Museum to answer the question courteously put to me by my hon. Friend (Mr. Booth). I had nothing to do with the Copyright Act, 1911, and certainly never influenced the Committee of Selection as to what action they should take as to the exclusion, or inclusion, of my hon. Friend as a Member of the Committee on that Bill. I can give the assurance that the hon. Member wants that this is a sudden emergency. I went on behalf of the trustees of the British Museum, only a few weeks ago, to the Treasury, to point out what a full meeting of the trustees had considered to be the difficulty with which they were faced. This Bill, to my knowledge, has only been drafted and in print for about three weeks. I produced it at the earliest moment I could, for I thought there was an emergency. The British Museum has been used, very cleverly, by certain traders to get registration of trade labels to which they were not entitled and which they were not intended to have. The result was that the British Museum would be driven to provide more accommodation and a larger staff to deal with these labels which are being constantly sent to them. One of the special emergencies is that the staff of the British Museum has already been greatly depleted owing to the number of them serving at the front now, and if to put even normal duties on a depleted staff is hard, to put added and quite unnecessary duties upon that staff would be cruelty to the British Museum. I hope the House will see that this is an emergency Bill and will be willing to pass it.


I happened to be a Member of the Committee on the Copyright Bill, which had one serious defect, namely, the non-inclusion of the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Booth). I can quite understand his feeling, because I know the wisdom and humorous turn of expression under which he conceals, more or less ineffectually, his sound commonsense. I believe he himself remedied the omission by haunting the Chamber like a Peri at the gate of Paradise, while we were engaged on our arduous toils. I am one of those who have used the British Museum constantly for years, and I regard it as one of the important factors—I do not say of my education, but of the foundations on which I hoped to base an education. The British Museum is like many other British institutions—it suffers front routine, and a certain lack of receptivity of new ideas. I believe the museum, even as a great education institution, would be greatly improved if, in addition to the elaborate catalogue of names which is of great assistance to readers, there were also a catalogue, which would require very arduous labours to prepare, but which is, perhaps, even more necessary, namely, a great catalogue of subjects. When one enters the museum for the first time, his feeling may be one of highly wrought expectancy, but that gives way at once to a sentiment of dismay. I once met an honest horse-shoer there who hoped to find a book on farriery. His expression when he entered the portals of the museum was like that of Von Kluck recently at the Battle of the Marne. He asked me to indicate the manner in which he could proceed to find the information he sought among this enormous embarras de riches. I would suggest that for the benefit of men of elementary education, there should be in the British Museum a series of guide-posts or signs, so that step, by step they could be led into the contemplation of the field of any subject they desired to study. I believe that the energy let loose by this Bill might be used in compiling such a catalogue as I suggest. Although one is bewildered by the number of books in the British Museum, there are some remarkable lacunœ. I have asked in vain for books in French, German, or Italian, and I was going to say in American, but I mean books produced by American publishers. Even one written by an English author of the highest repute, but published in Chicago, was not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum. I suggest that some of the surplus energy let loose by this Bill could be employed by instituting active research for new books of value published in foreign countries. I believe that some kind of Committee does exist or that there is somebody responsible, but his rôle is too passive. There should be somebody on the outposts of the world of ideas looking out for original work of real value in foreign countries.


I would remind the hon. Gentleman that this Bill deals only with advertisement labels and advertisements.


The Bill is an excellent Bill, partly because, in the way I have suggested, it would let free the energies of the great staff of the British Museum, and I am giving reasons why these books of value should be preferred to the advertisements which are sent to the British Museum. I am comparing one book with another. One day Disraeli went into a bookshop and asked what was new in the literary world. He was shown a book by Gladstone. He looked at it and said, "It is certainly in the shape of a book, but it is not literature." I am comparing these advertisements, which are exploited by British tradesmen, with literature, and suggesting that they should be replaced with books of real value.


That is a matter for the administration of the British Museum.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into Committee on the Bill."—[Mr. Harcourt.]

Bill accordingly be considered in Committee.

[Mr. WHITLEY in the Chair.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Clause 1 stand part of the Bill."


I want to be assured that there is no weakening of property in copyright made by this Bill. I have not had an opportunity of comparing it with previous legislation affecting copyright, and one cannot remember what took place in the Debates on the earlier Bill. I should like to be reassured on this point, because of the statement made by one hon. Member stigmatising all advertisements. The hon. Gentleman who moved the Bill said that the advertisements as a whole were worthless, which is going beyond the facts. The quality of our advertisements has, in many cases, been the envy of Europe—I will not say of America. I can say in praise of them that they have been very excellent productions, frequently reaching a high level. I know that in all cases the work is not worth preserving, but I should like to be assured that those who strive to lift the quality of the work they do for the advertising public are not losing any of their property by this measure, but that their property and rights are safeguarded.


I can give the hon. Member the assurance for which he asks. I was very particular to inquire whether we were in any way, by a side wind, affecting, or likely to affect, the copyright law. I thought that would not be in any way a justifiable thing to do. I am assured quite definitely, after some inquiry and research into the matter, that the rights of copyright advertisements and other matter will not in any way be affected. I used the word "rubbish" about certain advertisements, having in my mind only the particular advertisements which had so far, for the most part, been sent to the British Museum, and which are mainly medicine bottle labels and tracts about tabloids and things of that kind. I yield to no one in admiration of the art of advertising as it is practised in this country.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether there exists in these Acts a definition of advertisement which covers the case, because there are very valuable books issued by the Commonwealth of Australia which might really be called advertisements, but which the British Museum might be glad to secure? Is there any such definition of advertisements, or have the directors of the Museum sufficient discretion now, or are they compelled to refuse books which they desire to have?


I can assure the hon. Member that the trustees have a quite full discretion in that matter, and there is nothing in the wording of this Bill which would deprive them of that discretion or make it in the least necessary to refuse books merely because they contain within their covers a number of advertisements.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the third time, and passed.