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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910
Appendix N: Mark Twain and Copyright
by Paine, Albert Bigelow



Concerning Copyright (1875)

(See Chapter cii)


We, your petitioners, do respectfully represent as follows, viz.: That justice, plain and simple, is a thing which right-feeling men stand ready at all times to accord to brothers and strangers alike. All such men will concede that it is but plain, simple justice that American authors should be protected by copyright in Europe; also, that European authors should be protected by copyright here.

Both divisions of this proposition being true, it behooves our government to concern itself with that division of it which comes peculiarly within its province--viz., the latter moiety--and to grant to foreign authors with all convenient despatch a full and effective copyright in America without marring the grace of the act by stopping to inquire whether a similar justice will be done our own authors by foreign governments. If it were even known that those governments would not extend this justice to us it would still not justify us in withholding this manifest right from their authors. If a thing is right it ought to be done--the thing called "expediency" or "policy" has no concern with such a matter. And we desire to repeat, with all respect, that it is not a grace or a privilege we ask for our foreign brethren, but a right--a right received from God, and only denied them by man. We hold no ownership in these authors, and when we take their work from them, as at present, without their consent, it is robbery. The fact that the handiwork of our own authors is seized in the same way in foreign lands neither excuses nor mitigates our sin.

With your permission we will say here, over our signatures, and earnestly and sincerely, that we very greatly desire that you shall grant a full copyright to foreign authors (the copyright fee for the entry in the office of the Congressional Librarian to be the same as we pay ourselves), and we also as greatly desire that this grant shall be made without a single hampering stipulation that American authors shall receive in turn an advantage of any kind from foreign governments.

Since no author who was applied to hesitated for a moment to append his signature to this petition we are satisfied that if time had permitted we could have procured the signature of every writer in the United States, great and small, obscure or famous. As it is, the list comprises the names of about all our writers whose works have at present a European market, and who are therefore chiefly concerned in this matter.

No objection to our proposition can come from any reputable publisher among us--or does come from such a quarter, as the appended signatures of our greatest publishing firms will attest. A European copyright here would be a manifest advantage to them. As the matter stands now the moment they have thoroughly advertised a desirable foreign book, and thus at great expense aroused public interest in it, some small-spirited speculator (who has lain still in his kennel and spent nothing) rushes the same book on the market and robs the respectable publisher of half the gains.

Then, since neither our authors nor the decent among our publishing firms will object to granting an American copyright to foreign authors and artists, who can there be to object? Surely nobody whose protest is entitled to any weight.

Trusting in the righteousness of our cause we, your petitioners, will ever pray, etc.,

With great respect,
Your Ob't Serv'ts.


DEAR SIR,--We believe that you will recognize the justice and the righteousness of the thing we desire to accomplish through the accompanying petition. And we believe that you will be willing that our country shall be the first in the world to grant to all authors alike the free exercise of their manifest right to do as they please with the fruit of their own labor without inquiring what flag they live under. If the sentiments of the petition meet your views, will you do us the favor to sign it and forward it by post at your earliest convenience to our secretary?

Address -------------------
Secretary of the Committee.


Communications supposed to have been written by the Tsar of Russia and the Sultan of Turkey to Mark Twain on the subject of International Copyright, about 1890.


COL. MARK TWAIN, Washington.

Your cablegram received. It should have been transmitted through my minister, but let that pass. I am opposed to international copyright. At present American literature is harmless here because we doctor it in such a way as to make it approve the various beneficent devices which we use to keep our people favorable to fetters as jewelry and pleased with Siberia as a summer resort. But your bill would spoil this. We should be obliged to let you say your say in your own way. 'Voila'! my empire would be a republic in five years and I should be sampling Siberia myself.

If you should run across Mr. Kennan--[George Kennan, who had graphically pictured the fearful conditions of Siberian exile.]--please ask him to come over and give some readings. I will take good care of him.




DR. MARK TWAIN, Washington.

Great Scott, no! By the beard of the Prophet, no! How can you ask such a thing of me? I am a man of family. I cannot take chances, like other people. I cannot let a literature come in here which teaches that a man's wife is as good as the man himself. Such a doctrine cannot do any particular harm, of course, where the man has only one wife, for then it is a dead-level between them, and there is no humiliating inequality, and no resulting disorder; but you take an extremely married person, like me, and go to teaching that his wife is 964 times as good as he is, and what's hell to that harem, dear friend? I never saw such a fool as you. Do not mind that expression; I already regret it, and would replace it with a softer one if I could do it without debauching the truth. I beseech you, do not pass that bill. Roberts College is quite all the American product we can stand just now. On top of that, do you want to send us a flood of freedom-shrieking literature which we can't edit the poison out of, but must let it go among our people just as it is? My friend, we should be a republic inside of ten years.





(Prepared early in 1909 at the suggestion of Mr. Champ Clack but not offered. A bill adding fourteen years to the copyright period was passed about this time.)

The Policy of Congress:--Nineteen or twenty years ago James Russell Lowell, George Haven Putnam, and the under signed appeared before the Senate Committee on Patents in the interest of Copyright. Up to that time, as explained by Senator Platt, of Connecticut, the policy of Congress had been to limit the life of a copyright by a term of years, with one definite end in view, and only one--to wit, that after an author had been permitted to enjoy for a reasonable length of time the income from literary property created by his hand and brain the property should then be transferred "to the public" as a free gift. That is still the policy of Congress to-day.

The Purpose in View:--The purpose in view was clear: to so reduce the price of the book as to bring it within the reach of all purses, and spread it among the millions who had not been able to buy it while it was still under the protection of copyright.

The Purpose Defeated:--This purpose has always been defeated. That is to say, that while the death of a copyright has sometimes reduced the price of a book by a half for a while, and in some cases by even more, it has never reduced it vastly, nor accomplished any reduction that was permanent and secure.

The Reason:--The reason is simple: Congress has never made a reduction compulsory. Congress was convinced that the removal of the author's royalty and the book's consequent (or at least probable) dispersal among several competing publishers would make the book cheap by force of the competition. It was an error. It has not turned out so. The reason is, a publisher cannot find profit in an exceedingly cheap edition if he must divide the market with competitors.

Proposed Remedy:--The natural remedy would seem to be, amended law requiring the issue of cheap editions.

Copyright Extension:--I think the remedy could be accomplished in the following way, without injury to author or publisher, and with extreme advantage to the public: by an amendment to the existing law providing as follows--to wit: that at any time between the beginning of a book's forty-first year and the ending of its forty-second the owner of the copyright may extend its life thirty years by issuing and placing on sale an edition of the book at one-tenth the price of the cheapest edition hitherto issued at any time during the ten immediately preceding years. This extension to lapse and become null and void if at any time during the thirty years he shall fail during the space of three consecutive months to furnish the ten per cent. book upon demand of any person or persons desiring to buy it.

The Result:--The result would be that no American classic enjoying the thirty-year extension would ever be out of the reach of any American purse, let its uncompulsory price be what it might. He would get a two- dollar book for 20 cents, and he could get none but copyright-expired classics at any such rate.

The Final Result:--At the end of the thirty-year extension the copyright would again die, and the price would again advance. This by a natural law, the excessively cheap edition no longer carrying with it an advantage to any publisher.

Reconstruction of The Present Law Not Necessary:--A clause of the suggested amendment could read about as follows, and would obviate the necessity of taking the present law to pieces and building it over again:

All books and all articles enjoying forty-two years copyright-life under the present law shall be admitted to the privilege of the thirty-year extension upon complying with the condition requiring the producing and placing upon permanent sale of one grade or form of said book or article at a price of 90 per cent. below the cheapest rate at which said book or article had been placed upon the market at any time during the immediately preceding ten years.


If the suggested amendment shall meet with the favor of the present Congress and become law--and I hope it will--I shall have personal experience of its effects very soon. Next year, in fact, in the person of my first book, 'The Innocents Abroad'. For its forty-two-year copyright-life will then cease and its thirty-year extension begin--and with the latter the permanent low-rate edition. At present the highest price of the book is eight dollars, and its lowest price three dollars per copy. Thus the permanent low rate will be thirty cents per copy. A sweeping reduction like this is what Congress from the beginning has desired to achieve, but has not been able to accomplish because no inducement was offered to publishers to run the risk.

Respectfully submitted,


(A full and interesting elucidation of Mark Twain's views on Copyright may be found in an article entitled "Concerning Copyright," published in the North American Review for January, 1905.)


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