Paradise lost: Copyright for British authors in 19th C. America

Author: Stan Liebowitz (University of Texas at Dallas)

The payment to British authors by American publishers during the mid-19th century, when the works of British authors did not have any American copyright protection, is sometimes presented as evidence that authors are well rewarded without the need of copyright protection. The introduction of this evidence to economists and some legal researchers came largely from Arnold Plant’s 1934 critique of copyright. Plant relied on evidence gathered in a UK Royal Commission Report published in 1878. In this paper I examine the evidence put forward in the Royal Commission Report as well as data on payments to British Authors from a leading American book publisher during the mid-1800s. The conclusion I reach is that most British authors were not paid at all by American publishers and the majority who were paid received considerably less than they would have received under copyright. Further, a cartel-like agreement among leading American publishers enhanced the payments to British beyond what they otherwise would have been. This result is in contrast to many readings of Plant found in the literature, although a careful reading reveals that Plant claimed less than he seemed to be claiming.

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