Portrait of Thomas Noon Talfourd

In Literary Copyright Reform in Early Victorian England: The Framing of the 1842 Copyright Act, Catherine Seville provides a history of the political and social issues that manifested the much contested 1842 Copyright Act. Her analysis illuminates the relationship between competing organizations and individuals in the print market in their effort to push copyright reform. It was publishers and printers, rather than authors, who initially pushed for copyright protection. However, through the relentless efforts of Thomas Talfourd, copyright law finally considered the author in the production and sale of print. The act was introduced as a bill as Seville refers to it as “Talfourd’s bill.” Talfourd’s bill was unique with respect to the clause that demanded to “increase the term [sic] of copyright from the existing twenty-eight-year term, to last for the author’s life and then sixty years after death” (18). Additionally, he was one of the few individuals who actively and publically promoted authorship as a profession, a newly developing concept in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Seville writes that many organizations were against the bill, not only printers and publishers but also organizations that promoted national education. One such organization was the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The prevalent assumption about increasing copyright protection was that it would result in the increase of the price of books, and therefore, thwart the “dissemination of knowledge (11). Radicals, specifically those who opposed newspaper stamp, actively petitioned against the bill as they saw it as another “tax on knowledge” (21). Proponents of the bill argued for both economic and philosophic reasons. The passage of the bill would allow authors to secure the benefits of the sale of their work beyond their death and beyond the ephemeral taste of the market and the reading public. William Wordsworth specifically argued for this as he conceived of his poetry as striving for the universal rather than striving toward prevailing tastes.

Another line of reasoning which Seville elaborates was one which conformed to the Bentham utilitarianism: that the goal of all law is to achieve the greatest number of happiness for the greatest number of people. Should Talfourd’s bill pass, the fear was that the market would no longer control the price of books, eliminating the existence of cheap books, and that a monopoly would determine the price of books instead of the demand of the reading public. Wordsworth and other supporters of the bill, however, argued that “education of taste” (25) was neglected in an effort to reap profits from market demand. The obvious and less talked about reason for the bill was to allow authors to sustain a livelihood from their writing in order to secure authorship as a respectable profession.  As patronage was out of style and deemed unfashionable, the notion that gentleman should never seek money for their writing was no longer feasible in an expanding print market with growing reading public

According to Seville, neither publishers nor printers were viewed in a positive light as London publishers possessed a monopoly over the print market. Publishers and printers were often the same entity as printers became paid agents of most publishers and the publishers bought most of the copyrights from authors. Often threatened by piracy and underselling, the London publishers’ case against Alexander Donaldson resulted in the extension of copyright law, terminating existence of perpetual copyright. Many of the foundational cases that determined the specifications of copyright law resulted from lawsuits made by publishers and printers and not authors, one such case is Donaldson vs Beckett as it extensively limited the duration of a copyright, and thus, the rights of publishers and printers.

As Seville suggests, Talfourd found himself in a compromising position when it came to Donaldson vs Beckett case as he found the perpetual copyright was necessary to reinstitute in order to make his case for an authors’ rights. A copyright functioned like property in that it could be inherited from one generation to the next. Thus perpetual copyright functioned like an inheritance which both an author’s family and his descendants could rely on. Additionally, the bill considers those authors who do not write according to prevailing tastes will not benefit from the fruits of their labor until a significant amount of time has passed. Many authors, however, shied away from campaigning for their rights in parliament as it was seen as inappropriate for an individual to argue for his or her own economic gain.

Lack of public support for the bill, along with many other obstacles, stalled its passage. Though it was inappropriate for a poet and novel writer to lobby for his right to maintain a livelihood from his or her writing, writers of medicine and science were less likely to receive such criticism. Authors of educational literature thus actively lobbied for the bill and influential figures such as Thomas Carlyle, Williams Wordsworth, and Harriet Beecher Stowe eventually showed public support.