“Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet” – Mark Twain
In July of 1876, less than a month after the novel’s initial release in England, copies of Mark Twain‘s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer had begun to circulate the U.S. in large numbers. One would expect Twain to have celebrated such a development, however the book wasn’t due its U.S. release for another four months, these ‘pirated’ editions having been produced in Canada by publishers Belford Brothers, entirely legally according to the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875. For the remainder of his career, Twain fought to see copyright laws changed and the letter below is a prime example of his subsequent frustrations, written in 1880 to friend, fellow author and, briefly, politician Rollin Dagget following an unsuccessful appeal to James Blaine.
I want to go to Washington, but it ain’t any use, business-wise, for Congress won’t bother with anything but President-making. My publisher got me to send a letter of his to Blaine a month or two ago, in which our grievance was fully set forth. I didn’t believe Blaine would interest himself in the matter, & I was right. You just get that letter from Blaine, & cast your eye over it, & try to arrive at a realizing sense of what a silly & son-of-a-bitch of a law the present law against book-piracy is. I believe it was framed by an
goddamdidiot, & passed by a Congress of goddamdmuttonheads.
Now you come up here—that is the thing to do. I, also have Scotch whisky, certain lemons, & hot water, & struggle with the same every night.
If you want to see how thoroughly foolish section 4964 is, just read it & substitute the words
“U. S. treasury note” for the w “copy of such“counterfeit U. S. treasury note” for the words “copy of such book.”
My books sell at $3.50 a copy, their Canadian counterfeit at 25 & 50 cents. If I could sieze all the Canadian counterfeits I could no more use them to my advantage than the Government could use bogus notes to its advantage. The only desirable & useful thing, in both cases, is the utter suppression of the counterfeits. The government treats its counterfeiters as criminals, but mine as erring gentlemen. What I want is that mine shall be treated as criminals too.
S L C