HL Deb 31 May 1897 vol 49 cc1594-602

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said it was a little Bill on a big subject, and he was rather doubtful whether its small scope would recommend it to the House. Some of their Lordships were no doubt familiar with the Report of the very strong Royal Commission which sat in 1878 to inquire into the then condition of the law of copyright. That Report contained a scathing denunciation of the then state of the law, both as to form and substance, and probably their Lordships would be of opinion that nothing would meet the case except a Bill of very wide scope indeed. He entirely agreed in that, seeing that the Report of the Commission showed that the law then existing was a disgrace to the Statute-book. In its main features the law had been in force for 55 years. Much of the principal statute was unintelligible, though during that long period numerous judicial decisions had been given which had enabled authors and publishers to take a more accurate view of their rights; but a great many points in the Act still remained obscure and undecided. During that long period of 55 years, persons for whose benefit the Act was passed had spent a great deal of their literary gains in litigation, and a good many had probably spent a good deal move than their literary gains in endeavouring to ascertain their rights under the Act. In these circumstances he thought that authors had a right to complain of their treatment by Parliament. The Legislature ought long ago to have passed a consolidating and amending Act, and nothing short of such a Measure could be accepted by authors in full discharge of the debt due to them from Parliament. But authors, like other people, must take Parliament as they found it, and if they could not get what they considered to be their due, they must ask for what they thought they could get. In the fierce competition for legislative favour and even justice, authors, he thought, laboured under some disability as compared with, other classes of persons. Though it was exceedingly regrettable, it was not surprising that their just claims had been ignored by both Houses and both Parties. They wore not well versed in the art of agitation. The great majority of them were not keen party men, and many were not party men at all; and he supposed that when a General Election came about there was no class of persons among whom there had been less disposition to go to the poll. They wore not a very numerous class. There was, no doubt, a particular class, namely journalists, who were keen politicians, but they were less affected than other literary men by the law of copyright, for they generally wrote for the day alone. Authors would have to become much more proficient in the arts of the demagogue before they induced Parliament to pass a complete measure of reform. The attempt had been several times made, but the result had been by no means encouraging. The last attempt was made six years ago, when the Society of Authors, then led by the late Lord Tennyson, honoured him by asking him to introduce a Bill of a very comprehensive character to amend and consolidate the law. The same noble and learned Lord who now occupied the Woolsack occupied it then, and he was very much startled by the magnitude of the task which, he endeavoured to impose on the House. The noble and learned Lord acknowledged that the law was in a shocking state, and consequently allowed the Bill to be Read a Second time, but on the condition that it should be proceeded with no further. He acknowledged to the full that there was a great deal of force in the arguments of the noble and learned Lord, for not only was the Bill then introduced a very large and comprehensive Measure, but it dealt with matters very much in dispute both as to colonial matters and matters of foreign policy, and it affected to a great extent America, Canada, and the Berne Convention. Therefore there was great force in the contention that a Bill of that character should be taken in hand by the responsible Government of the day. Since that time both sides in politics had been in office, and neither had shown the slightest inclination to take the matter up. It therefore appeared to the Society of Authors that having waited in vain for six years, the only way in which they could bring this matter prominently before the public and Parliament was by presenting a Bill. He would very much, have liked to introduced a larger Measure, but had be again done so, the same arguments would have been used against him as were used six years ago. This Bill was of a totally different character, and he hoped their Lordships would not only give the Bill a Second Reading, but would view it favourably in its later stages. The Bill was a very small one in the sense that it was very short, but it dealt with several important matters, but matters of purely domestic concern. It did not affect the Colonies or foreign countries, and had nothing to do with the Convention of Berne. The Bill did not affect any question in which the Colonies were specially interested; he could not imagine that any Colony or British possession would object to be placed under the Bill; but if they should, there was a provision in it which met the case, for by Order in Council the Government of the day was to have the power of deciding whether or not any particular British possession should or should not come under the Bill. The Society of Authors placed great faith in their Lordships' House. They believed that quite independently of the other House their Lordships could do a great deal of good towards promoting the cause of copyright reform. If the Bill should pass their Lordships' House, he proposed that it should be sent to a strong Select Committee, upon which Lord Knutsford, who was a member of the Commission of 1878, had promised to sit. The Measure was by no means an author's Bill, although promoted primarily by the Society of Authors. Its provisions had also been carefully considered by the Publishers' Association and the Copyright Association, who were in the main satisfied with them. He trusted that a Bill that conciliated so many diverse interests would be considered as deserving of consideration. The Memorandum explanatory of the Bill divided it into five parts, the first of which dealt with the question of magazine copyright, as to which the law was very obscure and much in need of reform. No one pretended to know with certainty what the law was, but the better opinion appeared to be that there was no copyright in a magazine article for a period of 28 years, that a publisher could only print the article as part of his magazine, and that the contributor could not reprint it during the period which he had mentioned except by consent of the publisher. In practice the publisher generally did give his consent after a much shorter period, and all the Bill would do would be to bring the law into conformity with the almost universal practice. The change effected would be retrospective, and it was proposed that an author should be at liberty to republish a magazine article in separate form at the end of three years. This would be in accordance with the views of the Copyright Commission. It was not proposed to interfere with the copyright of the publisher of an encyclopædia, who would still retain his present rights over its contents. The Bill also proposed that a lecturer should have copyright in his lecture without its being necessary for him to give notice to two Justices of the Peace. A further provision made lectures and sermons delivered in endowed buildings subject to copyright. That was a proposal not in accordance with the recommendation of the Royal Commission, but the Society of Authors believed that they would be able to adduce good reasons for it before the Select Committee. The Bill dealt next with the question of abridgement, and, in accordance with the Report of the Royal Commission, proposed to enact that copyright should carry with it the right to abridge. The unauthorised dramatisation of a novel would be made an infringement of copyright, and the author would be provided with a simple remedy. The Measure would throw upon the British Museum the duty of certifying the date of the first publication of a book. It was necessary to ascertain the date of such publication, because the period of copyright ran from it, but at present it was often difficult to ascertain the date. It would be seen that this was not an ambitious Measure. It merely dealt with defects in the law, and the removal of those defects would bring welcome relief to a class of persons who were peculiarly entitled to the consideration of their Lordships' House. ["Hear, hear!"] He begged to move the Second Reading of the Bill.


said that he did not rise to criticise the provisions of the Measure, or to oppose its Second Reading. He feared, however, that he could only consent to the Motion on the same condition as was made by the Secretary for Scotland in 1891—namely, that the Bill should not be proceeded with further during the present Session. The whole subject of copyright was in a very; unsettled state, and negotiations were being carried on respecting it between this country, the colonies, and foreign countries, and until those negotiations were completed, it was obvious that a Bill of this kind could hardly have the effect which was desired. He thought it also obvious that, if a subject of this kind was to be dealt with at all, it ought to be dealt with as a whole, and not in a piecemeal fashion. The noble Lord appeared to think that neither the present Government nor the Government of which the noble Lord was himself a member, had shown any disposition to take this subject in hand. With regard to the present Government, that supposition was not correct, and the Board of Trade would be quite ready to introduce a Bill, dealing not only with the amendment of the copyright law, but also with its consolidation, when the negotiations to which he had referred had been completed. In these circumstances, he trusted that if the Bill was read a Second time the noble Lord would forego his intention of referring it to a Select Committee.


thought the condition on which the noble Earl was willing to allow the Bill to be read a Second time was a most extraordinary one. Lord Monkswell had explained clearly that what the Bill proposed to do was simply to touch the fringe of a very large subject. The Bill would not interfere in the slightest degree with the great law of copyright in books. What it would do was to amend the law affecting lectures, sermons, and the dramatisation of novels. These were matters independent of and separate from the general question of copyright. They required minute and detailed investigation, and if the Government were to allow these points to be examined by a Select Committee, there need be no interference whatever with the Measure which the noble Earl said he would be prepared to introduce at some future time. On the contrary, the consideration of this Bill by a Select Committee would pave the way for the Government Measure, and remove obstructions from its path. He had never heard a more inconclusive answer than that given by the noble Earl. Here was a Bill to amend a certain definite part of the law; its consideration would not hamper or fetter in the least the action of the Government with respect to the rest of the law on this subject; and he quite failed to understand why the Measure should not be proceeded with.


said that he took a great deal of interest in this subject, because he was a member of the Royal Commission of 1878. Next year 20 years would have elapsed since the publication of their Report, and up to the present time it had produced no result. He feared that if they were to wait for legislation until a complete and comprehensive Measure was introduced and passed, the 20 years during which those who were interested in this subject had been compelled to wait, would have a considerable addition to their number. He did not see why this Bill should not be referred to a Select Committee in order that its provisions, which did not really go to the root of the copyright question, might be considered carefully and put into the best possible shape. That surely might be done, even if the Bill could not be passed. One reason why the settlement of this question had been delayed so long was that some of our colonies had raised objections from time to time to legal alterations which would affect them. One might almost say that there had been some friction between Colonial Governments and the Government of this country with regard to copyright laws extending to the colonies. But he did not think that these difficulties afforded any ground for not proceeding further with the consideration of this Measure now. It seemed to him that the matters with which the Bill dealt might be treated very much apart from the general question of copyright law, and that it would be a useful work for a Select Committee to inquire what was the best shape in which they could be put. So far from creating any difficulty with regard to the Bill which probably the Government might introduce, it would be of immense assistance if these separate and detached questions could be carefully considered by a Select Committee. They could then embody, if the results appeared satisfactory, those provisions in their Bill, or after seeing all that was to be said by the Select Committee they might make alterations or abandon any part of them. It struck him, therefore, that the consideration of this Bill by a Select Committee could not interfere with any negotiations that might arise with the Government in afterwards framing a Bill. He called attention to two provisions in the Bill that would require attention and further consideration. The first was the provision relating to the dramatization of novels. It made it an infringement of copyright without the consent of the author to take or embody the title of a book or colourably take from the book a substantial part of the dialogue. So far he thought that there would not be much difference of opinion. The Bill also made it an infringement to take or colourably take a part of the plot or incidents of the novel. But plot and incidents were very often to be found which were very similar in their character in more than one novel, and, supposing they found the same plot in two novels, was the owner of the copyright in each of the novels to be able to treat the adaptation as an infringement of his copyright? If so, then they might have several persons complaining of a breach of copyright in respect of one and the same drama. That was a part of the clause which would require further consideration. The other was an important point. He sympathised with the scheme as to the time when copyright began; but there was a difficulty in ascertaining when copyright had begun and when publication had taken place. The proposal was to make a certificate of the British Museum operative as to the time from which copyright had to run. Every author, no doubt, was bound to send a copy of his book to the British Museum under a penalty, but he was not sure that the effect of the provision had been thoroughly considered. Unless a person publishing in this country sent his book within a month he was liable to a penalty of £5. But supposing an author delayed to send beyond the month the only result was that he subjected himself to the penalty. If the copyright was to run from the date when the author first transmitted the book to the British Museum, obviously it might be of advantage to the owner to extend the period of sending his book to the British Museum. Six months' extension of copyright might be more valuable to him than the penalty of £5. If the book was published outside the United Kingdom, in another part of the British dominions, it need only be sent to the British Museum within twelve months of publication. In that case a book published in the colonies, if sent, say, at the end of the eleventh month, would allow the colonial author to obtain practically an additional year's copyright over the person who published in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the clause, though excellent in intention, might probably with some additional provisions be made capable of affording a satisfactory solution of the time of publication; and those were matters which might be carefully considered when the Bill was further discussed.


thought that the subject was one which would be, to some extent, assisted by the deliberations of a Select Committee. [Cheers.] He was not in the position to give his noble Friend any undertaking that the Measure would be passed into law this Session, because he thought that there was a great deal in it which required discussion. He thought that their Lordships would do well to read the Bill a Second time now, though, looking at the date at which they now were, he was afraid that there was not a great chance of actual legislation this year. He agreed that the deliberations of a Select Committee might assist both their Lordships and the other House in dealing with this subject on some future occasion. [Cheers.]

Bill Read 2a, and referred to a Select Committee.