John Wurtele Lovell Company, New York, 1878-1881
John W. Lovell Company, New York, 1882-1891

From The Publishers' Weekly, No. 384 (May 24, 1879), p580-582


In your recent editorial on "The 'Monopoly' of Copyright," you credit me with uttering a protest "against the 'monopoly' of any one publisher in the works of a given author" in a recent issue. As I merely touched upon the question in that communication, intending to refer to it again, I would now, with your permission, state a few reasons why I made that protest, and why I think an international copyright, based on the royalty plan, will alone be acceptable to the people of this country.

Premising that a majority of our people believe that foreign authors are entitled to a fair remuneration for their work, how can this object best be accomplished? Let us lay aside all sentiment, which unfortunately has been so much introduced in the discussion of this matter, and treat the question purely from a business standpoint. Granted that authors have rights, the people also have rights that must be respected, and we must be careful, in seeking to do justice to the one, to do no injustice to the other.

Let us first see what effect, what gain or what loss, would result to the people through granting foreign authors the same privileges here our own enjoy.

The first effect would be to largely increase the price of books. This I think is self-evident and generally admitted. Give a publisher and an author a monopoly in a book and it is natural, if the book is a popular one, that they will desire to make all the profits possible. They will keep the work at a high price, at any rate, for several years after publication, until the libraries and the wealthier class of readers are supplied. If it should then be deemed profitable to issue other editions in cheaper form, the prices would be still far above those now exacted. Instead of a gain, therefore, we must admit international copyright, giving foreign authors the same rights here as native, would prove a great injury to the people generally, by enhancing the price of books. But there is a more serious objection still, and that is the power it proposes to place in the hands of foreigners of levying any tax they please upon the people, which will result in withdrawing very large sums of money from the country for a long series of years. While we may be willing to grant this power to our own citizens (though I believe the royalty plan, even applied to national copyright, would in the end be a benefit to native authors, as I will show further on), we must consider what enormous power it is ignorantly proposed to grant foreigners by giving them a monopoly of the sale of their books here. As for example, suppose another work as popular as Lord Macaulay's History, is published, and international copyright on the monopoly plan being in force, the author, through his American publishers, would control sales in this country as well as is his own. The work is brought out is England in five volumes at 15s.a volume. It would be published here probably at an approximate price, say $3 a volume, $15. The cost of manufacture, discount to the trade, and publishing, expenses would not exceed $8, leaving a net profit to the publisher and author. As one-third this sum would be ample remuneration in this case, the foreigners would be levying an unjust and unnecessary tax of $4.67 a copy, or if sales amounted to, say, 5000 copies a year, of $23,350 yearly on one book only. And this is not the worst feature; for by (the foreign author) would also prevent cheaper editions of the book being issued for any number of years he pleased, and thus unjustly deprive a large number of people from benefiting by his work. Unjustly, I say, because by a royalty plan, while the gains to the author would be fairly remunerative, the people generally could buy the work and be the better for it, while otherwise the money forced from the few would go largely to enrich the publishers; in many cases, in fact, where the author had sold his rights for a fixed sum, wholly to enrich the publishers, English and American.

Let foreign authors be paid for their labor, but do not place a power in their hands to levy a tax that must prove a serious burden to our people. Let such a tax at least be limited, and this the royalty plan of copyright will accomplish. A ten per cent royalty would give the author a fair remuneration, and the competition engendered by any publisher having the right to issue the book keep the price at the lowest figure. The objection you raise that under such a plan no fine editions of books can be made, and Mr. Marston's objection that no publisher could be found to publish a book at all, because publishers numbers two and three would get out cheaper editions and so ruin the sale of number one, seem to me equally fallacious. It is a well-known fact that of all standard and good books there will be a certain demand for a fine edition, no matter how many cheap editions maybe in the market. This has been conclusively proved by the recent issue of McCaulay's "England" in fine library style at $10, for which a very large expense must have bees incurred in making new electrotype plates, when there are seven or eight other editions, early gotten up too, selling from $2.50 upwards. Then, again, both Mr. Marston and yourself must know that there is nothing to prevent publisher number one being publisher number two and publisher number three also; and if a wise man, understanding his business, he will be so. Look in what an advantageous position be is placed. He can make his plates so as to print both a fine and cheap edition from the same set, or, it he feels assured of a large demand for his book, he can make two sets of plates at once, and issue both fine and cheap editions. For it is evident that if it will pay publisher number two to incur an expense of $1000, $2000, or $3000 or more for a set of plates, and publisher number three or four can go to the same expense, then publisher number one, being first in the field and knowing the popular demand, can issue editions to meet it, thus obviating the necessity of publisher number two or three getting up the book at all, and in fact deterring them from doing so.

As to the effect upon manufacturing industries, though this has been ridiculed in some quarters as unworthy of consideration, it certainly has a most important bearing. Suppose the monopoly plan is carried out. As there will be no necessity for the issue of cheap editions, American publishers will in most cases obtain duplicate plates from England, or if a proviso is made that the plates shall be made here, still but one set only will be needed, and the work for our stereotypers and electrotypers be lessened. A limited sale of the book -- and it must be so at a high price -- though the profits may be as large to author and publisher as a large sale of a cheap edition, means a small consumption of paper and little work for pressmen and binders, thus materially injuring all these trades. On the other hand, by the royalty plan at least two sets of plates of all popular books would be made here, giving full employment to the foundries.

And then how many copies of a book would be sold on account of cheapness in price, keeping paper-makers, press-rooms, and binderies busy every where! Even if a book is to be made and sold for ten cents, fifteen cents, or twenty five cents, if the people want it so, let them have it; no one is compelled to buy the ten-cent edition, as a finer edition of the same work may always be obtained, and thousands will probably buy at ten cents who would not pay $1.50 or $2 under any circumstances. The author would not be any loser, for the increased sales would make up for the lowness in price. A sale of 5000 copies of a book at $1 would be equally as profitable to him as 1000 at $5, though this comparison is hardly correct, as probably 10,000 copies of a book at $1 would be sold to 1000 at $5, granting the book to be a very popular one. That the price of a book has much to do with the demand for it, compare the sales of, say, Longfellow and Tennyson here. Prices being equal, it will, I think, be admitted that even more of the former than of the latter would be sold, whereas, as it is, it may safely be said at least ten of the latter are sold to one of the former. Contrariwise, it is estimated that about ten copies of Longfellow are sold in England to one of Tennyson, showing that the large sales of the foreign author in each country are due solely to the price the books are sold at, and not on account of merit. And this is why I believe the royalty plan would even benefit native authors, the largely increased sales caused by competition tending to increase the remuneration to the author rather than diminish it. As for example, in the case of such a book as "Uncle Tom's Cabin," what an enormous sum of money would have been paid the author if a royalty plan had been in force here and in foreign countries! Under such a system, too, the injustice so often done an author who has sold his or her mss. for a small sum, driven to it by necessity, would be entirely done away with, and the book proving popular, the author would reap a fair proportion of the gains, and not, as in many instances in the past, be living in extremest poverty, while the publisher was rapidly growing wealthy from his or her work.

Under the present system of copyright, entailing high prices, an immense mass of rubbish is published that had far better have never seen the light; but as high prices are expected for copyright books, a sale of a comparatively few copies pays the expenses of getting up the work, and it must be a very poor book indeed of which 500 or 1000 copies cannot be sold. But by the royally plan only really meritorious works would be profitable, as a large sale would be needed to pay first expenses; and while we would have fewer new books in consequence, we would have better ones, and of these more be sold and the authors receive fairer remuneration.

I believe with the late Charles Knight that the mass of the people should be our first consideration, and our aim be the diffusion among them of the best literature at the cheapest possible price. Considering the publishing interest alone the monopoly plan would, no doubt, be the most advantageous; but the gains made would be at the expense of the whole nation. The royalty plan will fairly remunerate all publishers, and at the same time benefit the nation by granting the boon of cheap book.

There are other points might be brought out in this connection, one in particular as to the effect upon discounts. A royalty plan, by making the retail price the lowest possible, would necessarily limit discounts to a reasonable rate and effectually settle this much-vexed question.

To sum up, then, I contend that the monopoly plan of copyright means --

High-priced books for the few.

An unjust tax to be levied by foreigners on the whole people, as it is left to the foreigner to make the tax any amount he pleases.

Injury to our manufacturing interests, giving less work to stereotypers, electrotypers, press-men, paper-makers, and binders.

The benefit of the few to the injury of the many.

The royalty plan means --

Cheap books for the many.

A fair tax to remunerate authors for their work, such tax, however, to be fixed by our own government.

Increased work for our manufactories, Competition tending to give more work to all industries engaged in book-making.

The benefit of the many, while fairly remunerating the publisher's interests.

I had intended, in this connection, to again allude to the "courtesy of the trade," which I maintain is simply a monopoly, in many respects similar to that proposed to be enforced upon us by the plan of international copyright you advocate, without the benefits to the author the latter intends to cover; but I have already so encroached upon your space, I must defer this to another time.

[Ed. note: This article is accompanied by generally approving responses from Geroge Ticknor Curtis, Benson J. Lossing, J.R. Osgood, and other publishers.]

Last revised: 27 October 2010