Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

Perpetual Copyright*


 

The question of copyright, of course, is not a literary one, but purely economic. Yet it concerns the writing man so nearly that every one who lives by pen and ink must have an interest in its best solution.

In the first place, copyright, clearly enough, is merely a convention on the part of a civilized community to recognize a writer's ownership on the product of his own labour. "Yes," says the community, "we will agree to allow you to enjoy the fruit of your toil for a certain time. If you will be at pains to undergo certain formalities of registration and the like, we will protect you from robbery for a term of years. During that time no one but you of your chosen agents shall have any right to print or sell your work; and you may dispose of it in an open market like any other estimable commodity."

This means, of course, that the work of the writers has an actual value to any nation, state, kingdom or commonwealth. It is something that the people at large appreciate, and will buy for a fair price. It is an appreciable result of labour, subject to the laws of demand and supply, like any other commercial output.

I am overlooking for the present the purely artistic value of literature. In a sense literature, and indeed all art, is entirely and wholly dependent of the law of supply and demand as generally understood. It is the fine play of genius in expression; it is the inmost human heart finding vent for its smothered feelings and aspirations in words. What Browning or Carlyle thought about life, that he must say and nothing else. The criticism of life that one finds in the pages of Mr. Meredith is the product of our own day, truly enough, but it is influenced by the size of his public in their predilections, absolutely not one jot. And this is true of all art. It is born of the pure joy of creation, never for any extraneous need. The direct influence of commercialism upon art is always a baleful influence, and in the nature of the case must necessarily be so. The artist with his work has no more to do with the law of supply and demand than the bee with its honey. Let that be admitted most fully.

We are not, however, considering art and literature in that relation now. We are considering literature after its genesis. Given the finished work in letters, what's become of it? Evidently it takes its place beside the apples and onions and other good things of life in the huckster's cart. We have agreed to concede in each man (and in some cases to each woman) the right of possession in property, in personal property and in real estate. All right of possession is derived from this consensus and concession. I may say to you that I have a right to anything I make with my hands or cause to grow from the ground, that I have a right to the result of my own labor. Yes, true; but that right would not be worth a minute's tenure without the consent of my fellows. Mutually we are agreed that we will not rob one another. It saves trouble to make this understanding thorough and paramount. This is the foundation of individual liberty.

Occasionally, on the other hand, we allow ourselves to experiment in socialism-socialism pure and simple. The free school system is unmitigated socialism. The state puts its hand in the pocket of the childless rich to pay for the education of the numberless children of the poor. What becomes of your individual liberty in that case? It has been wiped out. We are agreed that that much socialism is a good thing. The individual has not redress against the appropriation.

The state, then, recognizes right to private property. It I paint a picture or fashion a piece of silver these things are allowed to belong to me. I own them in perpetuity. They are possessions; they are valuable possessions, too, perhaps. And yet the intrinsic worth of the metal and the canvas is slight. What gives them their unique value? Evidently my skill and talent as an artist, nothing more. People recognize the fact that I have exceptional ability as a silversmith or a painter, and the work of my hand has worth accordingly. I am granted right of property in these creations of mine in perpetuity. Now, if I write you a novel, how does my case differ? It doesn't differ at all. My inherent, intrinsic, logical right to the property value in that book is exactly the same as my right of property in the picture or the silver ornament. By all parity of reasoning, that right should be perpetual.

You say that for the good of the community in time my right to possession of that property should lapse, should pass into the hands of the state for the freer benefit of all. Very well, I cannot deny you. Your will is paramount. I only hold any tenure at all by your permission. But I say that if I am only to be allowed to enjoy the fruit of my labor for forty-odd years, the painter should not be allowed to enjoy his a day longer. If I may hold my copyright for such and such term of years and at the end of that time must give my work to the state for nothing, then the painter should be permitted to keep his painting only for the same time, and after that it should revert to the commonwealth and be stored in a public museum for the public good. Yes, and more than that, the term of copyright should be longer than the term of possession allowed to other artists for the literary product has not value except its copyright value; it cannot be enjoyed exclusively as a picture can.

If we are not to have perpetual copyright, very well, then, let us have a socialistic distribution of property. And let the others begin, whose property is already secure.

We must bear clearly in mind this fact that the granting of copyright is not the granting of a monopoly, but merely a guarantee of property. There ought really to be no need of any copyrighting process; every piece of writing ought to be recognized as private property the moment it is written, and it ought to be a criminal offense to print that piece of writing without the leave of the writer. Some day we shall arrive at that degree of common honesty. Only a few years ago the theft of books was legal in the United States. And we continue to steal them now whenever we can catch the author napping.

It is argued, too, that the term of patents is even far shorter than that of copyright. There is this difference, however. It is always possible that a patent may become absolutely essential to the life of the world, and to leave its control in private hands would imperil the state. Think what might happen for instance, if patents were perpetual and the electric telegraph throughout the world were in the hands of a single representative of the Morse family to-day. He could paralyze the earth with a turn of his finger. But literary property can never become so essentially important to the state as that.

There are those who think that an author should be permitted to enjoy his copyright, but that we are not called upon to allow his grandchildren to enjoy it. They forget that the present value of a literary production increases in proportion to the length of the copyright term. If I can sell you a piece of absolute property, certainly you will give me more for it than if than if I could only sell you the right to enjoy if for a period of years.

Perpetual copyright is the only just copyright. But if we cannot be absolutely honest, let us be as honest as we can. Let us have a copyright for life and fifty years after, at the very least.


"Perpetual Copyright," Commercial Advertiser, Jan. 13, 1899 [back]