I shall ask permission to introduce my remarks in a manner which
will be personally interesting to you, by relating a little anecdote con-
nected with the early history of your own family.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, one of your ancestors,
voyaging with the illustrious Hendrick Hudson, got leave of absence
from the ship, and took a walk on Manhattan Island, in the days
before the Dutch settlement. He was possessed, as I have heard you
say, of great ability in the mechanical arts. Among the articles of
personal property which he had about him was a handsome watch,
made by himself, and containing special improvements of his own
The good man sat down to rest and look about him, at a pleasant
and pastoral spot, now occupied, it may be interesting to you to
know, by a publishing-house in the city of New York. Having
thoroughly enjoyed the cool breeze and the bright view, he took out
his watch to see how the time was passing. At the same moment
an Iroquois chief --- whose name has, I regret to say, escaped my
memory --- passed that way, accompanied by a suitable train of fol-
lowers. He observed the handsome watch; snatched it out of the
stranger's hand, and then and there put it into the Indian substitute
for a pocket,--- the name of which, after repeated efforts, I find myself
unable to spell.
Your ancestor, a man of exemplary presence of mind, counted the
number of the chief's followers, perceived that resistance on his
single part would be a wilful casting away of his own valuable life,
and wisely decided on trying the effect of calm remonstrance.
"Why do you take my watch away from me, sir ?" he inquired.
The Indian answered with dignity, "Because I want it?"
"May I ask why you want it?"
The Indian checked off his reasons on his fingers. " First, because
I am not able to make such a watch as yours. Secondly, because
your watch is an article likely to be popular among the Indians.
Thirdly, because the popularity of the watch will enable me to sell
it with considerable advantage to myself. Is my white brother
Your ancestor answered that he was not satisfied. "The thing
you have taken from me," he said, " is the product of my own inven-
tion and my own handiwork. It is my watch."
The Indian touched his substitute for a pocket. " Pardon me," he
replied, " it is mine now."
Your ancestor began to lose his temper ; he reiterated his assertion :
"I say my watch is my lawful property?"
The noble savage reasoned with him. "Possibly your watch is
protected in Holland," he said. "It is not protected in America.
There is no watch-right treaty, sir, between my country and yours."
"And, on that account, you are not ashamed to steal my watch ?"
"On that account, I am not ashamed to steal your watch. Good
The prototypes of modern persons have existed in past ages. The
Indian chief was the first American publisher. Your ancestor was
the parent of the whole European family of modern authors.
You and I, Colonel, are resolved to look this copyright question
fairly in the face. Suppose we look at it from the historical point of
view, to begin with.
The Dutch emigrants settled on Manhattan Island about two hundred
and fifty years ago. They might have "pirated" the island, on the
ground that it was not protected by treaty. But they were too honest
to commit an act of theft : they asked the Indians to mention their price.
The Indians mentioned twenty-four dollars. The noble Dutchmen
In due course of time arose the Dutch city of New Amsterdam.
Civilization made its appearance on Manhattan Island ; and with
Civilization came Law. Acting as the agent of Justice, Law pro-
tected property. In those days of moral improvement, if an Indian
stole a Dutchman's watch he committed an offence, and he was pun-
ished accordingly, --- for, observe, a watch was now property.
Later dates brought their changes with them. The English forced
themselves into the Dutchmen's places. New Amsterdam became
New York. As time went on, a foolish English king and an ob-
stinate English government were deservedly beaten in a trial of
strength with the descendants of the first English settlers. The
Republic of the United States started on its great career. With
peace came the arts of peace. The American author rose benignly
on the national horizon. And what did the American Government
The American Government, having all other property duly pro-
tected, bethought itself of the claims of literature ; and, looking
towards old Europe, saw that the work of a man's brains, produced in
the form of a book, had been at last recognized as that man's property
by the law. Congress followed this civilized example, and recognized
and protected the published work of an American citizen as being
that citizen's property.
Having thus provided for the literary interests of its own people
within its own geographical limits, Congress definitively turned its
back on all further copyright proceedings in the Old World. After a
certain lapse of time, the three greatest nations in the continent of
Europe --- France, Germany, and Italy --- agreed with England that
an act of justice to literature still remained to be done. Treaties of
international copyright were accordingly exchanged between these
States ; and an author's right of property in his work was now recog-
nized in other countries than his own.
With this honorable example set before it by other Governments,
what has the Government of the United States done? Nothing!
To this day it refuses to the literary property of other people the
protection which it gives to the literary property of its own people.
To this day, the President and Congress of America remain content
to contemplate the habitual perpetration, by American citizens, of the
act of theft.
Colonel, when honest men perceive that an act of justice ought to
be done and determine really to do it, there are never any insuperable
difficulties in the way. On the plain merits of the case --- mark that, if
you please ; you will soon see why --- there are no more difficulties in
the way of international copyright between England and America than
between England and France, England and Germany, England and
Italy. The cases run on parellel lines, the necessity of foreign trans-
lation, in the European case, being an accidental circumstance, which
adds to the expense of publishing the book, and nothing more. My
work is republished in America in English, and republished in France
in French. Whatever difference there may be in the language of the
republication, the fact of the republication remains the same fact in
I am very careful to put this plainly. There must be some clear
ground to stand on, before I can attempt to clear away the extraordi-
nary accumulation of delusions under which the unfortunate subject
of copyright has been smothered in recent years. If you see any
difficulty in accepting my statement of the case thus far, let us revert
to first principles, and ask ourselves, What is the object to be attained
by the thing called International Copyright?
In answering this question I will put it personally, for the greater
facility of illustration. The object of International Copyright is to
give me by law (on conditions with which it is reasonably possible
for me to comply) the same right of control over my property in my
book in a foreign country which the law gives me in my own country.
In Europe, this is exactly what we have done. When I publish my
book in London, I enter it at Stationers' Hall, and register it as my
property, --- and my book is mine in Great Britain. When I publish
my book in Paris, I register it by the performance of similar formal-
ities, --- and again my book is mine in France. In both cases, my
publisher (English or French) is chosen at my own free will. His
position towards me is the position of a person who takes the busi-
ness of publishing and registering off my hands, in consideration of a
bargain previously made between us, the essence of which bargain
is that the book is my property, and that my written permission is
necessary before he can obtain his right to publish the book, and his
exclusive claim (for a greater or less period of time) to the privilege
of selling it for me. Why cannot I do the same thing in the United
States ; and why cannot my American brother-writer do the same
thing in Great Britain?
Here the Colonel lays down my letter for awhile, and looks be-
" The copyright difficulty, as stated by Mr. Wilkie Collins," he says,
"appears to be no difficulty at all. What am I to think of the multi-
tudinous objections, from the American point of view, raised in lead-
ing articles, pamphlets, speeches, and so forth." My good friend, a
word in your ear. The American objections (I say it with due respect
for the objectors) are, one and all, American delusions! The main
object of this letter is, if possible, to blow some of those delusions
away. I promise not to be long about it, and to keep my temper,---
though I have lost some thousands of pounds by American pirates.
Let us begin with the delusion that the American people have
something to do with the question of International Copyright.
An American citizen sees a reprinted English book in a shop-
window, or has it pitched into his lap by a boy in a railway train, or
hears from a friend that it is well worth reading. He buys the book
and reads it; and, as I can gratefully testify from my own personal
experience, he feels, in the great majority of cases, a sincere respect
for literature and a hearty gratitude to the writer who has instructed
or interested him, --- which is one among the many honorable distinc-
tions of the national character. When he has done all this, what in
Heaven's name has author, publisher, orator, or leading-article-writer
any further right to expect from him? When I have paid for my
place at the theatre, and added my little tribute of applause in honor
of the play and actors, have I not done my duty as one of the audi-
ence? Am I expected to insist on knowing whether the author's
rights have been honestly recognized by the manager, and the player's
salaries regularly paid without deduction once a week ? It is simply
ridiculous to mention the American people in connection with the
copyright question. The entire responsibility of honorably settling
that question, in any country, rests with the legislature. In the
United States, the President and Congress are the guardians and
representatives of American honor. It is they, and not the people,
who are to blame for the stain which book-stealing has set on the
Let me introduce to you another delusion, which has amused us in
We are gravely informed that the United States is the paradise of
cheap literature, and that international copyright would raise the
price of American books to the inordinately high level of the English
market. Our Circulating-Library system is cited as a proof of the
truth of this assertion. There can be no two opinions on the ab-
surdity of that system; but, such as it is, let us at least have it
fairly understood. When a novel, for example, is published at the
preposterous price of a guinea and a half, nobody pays that price. At
a deduction of one third at least, an individual speculator buys the
book and lends it to the public. Give this man, as an annual sub-
scription, the nominal price originally asked for the book (a guinea
and a half), and he will lend you at least three novels a week, for a
whole year. If this is not cheap reading, what is ? But you will say,
The public may want to buy some of the best of these novels. Very
well. Within a year from the date of its first issue, the book is re-
published at five or six shillings (a dollar and a half), and is again
republished at two shillings (fifty cents). Setting this case of stolen
literary property out of the question, are these not current American
prices? But why should the purchaser be made to wait till the book
can be sold at a reasonable price ? I admit the absurdity of making
the purchaser of a book wait until the borrower has done with it.
But is that absurdity likely, under any conceivable circumstances, to
be copied in America? In England, the circulating library is one of
our old institutions which dies slowly. In America, it is no institu-
tion at all. Is it within the limits of probability that one of your citi-
zens should prefer lending a novel to a few hundred subscribers, when
he can sell it to purchasers by the thousand ? That citizen is not to
be found out of a madhouse. The one thing needful, so far as works
of fiction are concerned, is to show you that our popular price for
a novel is the American popular price. Look at the catalogue of
"Harper's Library of American Fiction," and you will find that the
prices range from two to three shillings (fifty to seventy-five cents).
Turning to literature in general, let us consult Messrs. Harper
again. I am away from home while I write, and I have no means
of quoting from a more recent catalogue than the "Summer List for
1878." However, the prices of less than two years ago in New York
cannot be obsolete prices yet. Here are a few specimens only:
"The Atlantic Islands. Illustrated. 8vo, cloth. $3.00?" (Twelve
shillings.) "Annual Record of Science and Industry for 1877. Large
12mo, cloth. $2." (Eight shillings.) "The Student's French
Grammar. 12mo, cloth. $1.40." (Say five shillings and sixpence.)
"Art Education, Applied to Industry. Illustrated. 8vo, cloth gilt.
$4-00." (Sixteen shillings.) "Harper's Travellers' Handbook, for
Europe and the East. $3.00 per volume." (Twelve shillings.) I
am quite ready to believe that every one of these books is well worth
the price asked for it. But don't tell me that American books are
always cheap books. And let it at least be admitted that English
publishers are not the only publishers who charge a remunerative
price for a valuable work, which has proved a costly work to produce,
and which is not always likely to command a large circulation. To
sum it up, literature which addresses all classes of the population is
as cheap in England as it is in America: literature which addresses
special classes only will, on that very account, always be published at
special prices (with or without international copyright) on both sides
of the Atlantic.
I must not try your patience too severely, Colonel. Let me leave
unnoticed some of the minor misunderstandings which obscure the
American view of the copyright case, and let me occupy the closing
lines of this letter with a really mischievous delusion, entertained by
one class of American citizens only. Prepare yourself for a surprise.
The American publisher has actually persuaded himself that his in-
dividual trade-interests form an integral part of the question of inter-
Just consider what this extraordinary delusion really amounts to.
"We don't deny," the American publishers say, "that you English
authors have a moral right of property in your books, which we are
quite ready to make a legal right on condition that we are to dictate
the use which you make in America of your own property. If we
confer on you international copyright, we see with horror a future
day when English publishers and English printers may start in busi-
ness under our very noses ; and we will give you your due only with
the one little drawback that we forbid you to employ your countrymen
to publish your books in our country, Our respect for justice is
matched only by our respect for our purses. Hurrah for honorable
dealings with the British author, so long as there is no fear of a
decrease in the balance at our banker's! Down with the British
author and away with the national honor, if there is the slightest
danger of the almighty dollar finding its way into other pockets
Am I exaggerating? Let two of the chief American publishers
speak for themselves.
Hear Messrs. Harper & Brothers first. After reciting the general
conditions on which they propose to grant us copyright in the United
States, they proceed as follows : " And provided further, that within
six months after registration of title the work shall have been manu-
factured and published in this country, and by a subject or citizen of
the country in which such registration has been made." Mr. W. H.
Appleton, writing to the London "Times" (in a curiously aggressive
tone), expresses himself even more plainly. "Our people," he says ---
evidently meaning our printers and publishers "would rejoice to
open this vast opportunity to your intellectual laborers. . . . But they
hold themselves perfectly competent to manufacture the books that
shall embody your authors' thoughts, in accordance with their own
needs, habits, and tastes ; and in this they will not be interfered with."
(Extracted from Messrs. Harper & Brothers' pamphlet. New York,
March 17, 1879.)
To argue the question with men who are of this way of thinking
would be merely to waste your time and mine, If we are ever to
have international copyright between the two countries, we must have
the same unreserved recognition of moral right, the same ungrudging
submission to the law of honor, which has produced the treaties ex-
changed between the European Powers. In this respect, England
has set the example to the United States. And, let me add, England
has no fear of competition. I have put the question myself to emi-
nent London publishers. They have no idea of intruding their trade-
interests into a great question of national justice. They are ready to
welcome wholesome competition in an open market. If they set up
branch establishments in New York, the American publishers shall be
free to follow their example in London. What does Mr. Marston (of
the well-known London firm of Sampson Low, Marston, & Co.) say on
this subject, in his letter to the "Times" published May 12, 1879?
As a publisher, I trust I shall be absolved from the charge of advocating trade-
interests, when I express my strong conviction that the only convention between
the two countries which can possibly bear the test of time must be one based upon
the original and inherent rights of property. Let registration in Washington and
London, within a month or two months of first publication in either country, con-
vey respectively to English and American authors the same right in each other's
country as in their own, and one's sense of justice will be satisfied. . . . Such
restrictions as those proposed by American publishers exist in no other conven-
tions ; they arise out of a most unfounded and unnecessary fear of competition by
There is the opinion of one representative member of the trade. I
could produce similar opinions from other members, but I must not
needlessly lengthen my letter. Hear, instead, an American citizen,
who agrees with Mr. Marston and with me. Let Mr. George Haven
Putnam speak, --- delivering an address on International Copyright,
in New York, on the 29th of January, 1879:--
I believe that in the course of time the general laws of trade would and ought
so to regulate the arrangements for supplying the American public with books that,
if there were no restriction as to the nationality of the publisher or as to the im-
portation of printed volumes, the author would select the publishing agent, English
or American, who could serve him to best advantage, and that that agent would be
found to be the man who would prepare for the largest possible circle of American
readers the editions best suited to their wants. . . . If English publishers settling
here could excel our American houses in this understanding and in these facilities,
they ought to be at liberty to do so, and would be for the interest of the public
that no hindrances should be placed in their way.
I have now, I hope, satisfied you that I do not stand quite alone in
my way of thinking. If you make inquiries, you will find that other
American citizens, besides Mr. Putnam, can see the case plainly, as it
stands on its own merits.
Thus far I have been careful to base our claim to international
copyright on no lower ground than that of justice. Would you
like, before I conclude, to form some idea of the money we lose by
the freedom of robbery which is one of the freedoms of the American
Take the illustrious instance of Charles Dickens. The price agreed
on with his English publishers for the work interrupted by his death
---"Edwin Drood"--- was seven thousand five hundred pounds ; with
a provision for an addition to this sum if the work exceeded a certain
circulation. Even Dickens's enormous popularity in England is beaten
by his popularity in the United States. He has more readers in your
country than in mine, and, as a necessary consequence (with inter-
national copyright), his work would be worth more in America than
in England. What did he get in America for the "advance-sheets,"
with the pirates to be considered in making the bargain ? Less than
a seventh part of what his English publishers agreed to give him,
before a line of his novel was written, --- one thousand pounds.
But the case of Charles Dickens is the case of a writer who stands
apart, and without a rival in popularity. Take my case, if you like,
as representing the position of writers of a less degree of popularity.
I fail to remember the exact price which Messrs. Harper paid me for
the advance-sheets of "The Woman in White." It was certainly not
a thousand pounds ; perhaps half a thousand, or perhaps not so much.
At any rate (with the pirates in the background, waiting to steal), the
great firm in New York dealt with me liberally. It has been calcu-
lated, by persons who understand these matters better than I do, that
for every one reader in England I have ten readers in the United
States. How many unauthorized editions of this one novel of mine ---
published without my deriving any profit from them --- made their ap-
pearance in America ? I can only tell you, as a basis for calculation,
that one American publisher informed a friend of mine that he had
"sold one hundred and twenty thousand copies of 'The Woman in
White.' " He never sent me sixpence.
Good-by for the present, Colonel. I must go back to my regular
work, and make money for American robbers, under the sanction of
NOTE.---The editors agree with Mr. Collins in thinking that a treaty securing Inter-
national Copyright is in every way just and proper ; but they must disclaim all responsi-
bility for the language adopted by him in his argument. In a letter to the publishers of this
Review Mr. Collins says : " It [this article] has my name attached to it because I wish to
take on myself the entire responsibility of the tone in which this little protest is written. If
the article is published, I must ask as a condition that it shall be published without altera-
tions of any kind, excepting palpable errors or slips of the pen, exactly as it is written.
The article is printed in exact accordance with this request.