Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/August 1880/Editor's Table


WE can not congratulate the English on the treatment of the international copyright question by some of their eminent authors. It was but the other day that we had to point out the lack of good sense exhibited by Matthew Arnold in his very complacent discussion of the subject; and now comes a blast from Wilkie Collins which, although it does not amount to much, is still a perverse and unhelpful utterance. The reputations these men have are certainly not justified by their outgivings in relation to this important measure.

Mr. Collins writes for the "International Review," and is very indignant at the American "thieves" and "pirates" by whom he is "robbed." He seems to think that the main thing now is to brand these rascals indelibly; and so, to insure the full effect of his reproaches, he stipulates with the editors that not a denunciatory word shall be omitted from his paper; and they declare in a note that the said words are every one there, while "they must disclaim all responsibility for the language adopted by him in his argument."

Considerably more is made of this point than it is worth. There is obviously nothing new about it, as excoriating adjectives have been abundantly applied to us before by suffering authors. Nor is there anything objectionable in it; on the contrary, we are glad to see Mr. Collins "call a spade a spade," and mete out to those who steal his books the reprobation they deserve. Strong words are needed to characterize gross wrongs, and we agree that this is a case that calls for them. Mr. Collins is right in venting his righteous indignation in the most telling terms he can command: we only regret that he has been unable to give some freshness and new pungency to his invective.

But, when Mr. Collins gets through with his feeble vituperation, and comes to the practical question of what is to be done, he is then far less satisfactory. As a scold he is commonplace enough, but as a guide to lead us out of difficulty he is without qualification. To his diatribe we say "amen"; to his reasoning we say, "it won't do." He here betrays lack of judgment, and shows himself to be impracticable. We agree "with him that there is a palpable and vicious wrong to be set right; but the question is, how to accomplish it. The wrong requires to be defined and limited, that we may know precisely who suffers by it, and what must be the nature and extent of the remedy. The wrong here is, that the American Government does not protect the rights of foreign authors to property in their books; and, as that property is unprotected, it is appropriated by anybody who chooses to take it. Mr. Collins has an undoubted right to be thus protected, and, if he were a discreet man, he would confine his claim to its impregnable ground, and force his case in the direction where no resistance can be offered. But he stretches his claim until he destroys it, as may be easily pointed out.

The ideas and language, the soul and essence of a book—that which properly creates it—are contributed by the mind of the author. It is work, the product of toil and skill and time and capital, just as much as any other construction of industry. All civilized countries recognize and guard the right to this kind of property. We do it in this country in the case of our native authors, thus abundantly vindicating the theory and the practice. But we have the illiberality, the narrowness, and the meanness, to refuse this act of justice to foreign authors simply as foreigners. And for this course there can not be conjured up even a decent pretest; we simply want the works of these foreign authors, and outlaw them for the benefit of whomsoever can make money out of their productions. It is the duty of Mr. Collins and all others who are victims of this policy to protest against it as an outrage; and he should demand that his rights be admitted and his property defended by the authority of American law. Here his position is invincible.

Nevertheless, the case is not without its difficulties as viewed in the light of experience. There is no nation that recognizes an author's right in his book as absolute, indefeasible, and perpetual, like the rights to other kinds of property. Book-rights, like patent-rights, are limited, and expire in all countries after the lapse of specified though variable periods. Mr. Collins can not own his book for ever, even in England. It may be that this is unjust; but the demands of ideal equity are nowhere met. As a matter of fact, men have to be content with proximate justice; and the foreign author pushes his claim as far as is wise or expedient or practical, when he demands that the United States shall place him upon an equal footing with American authors as regards protection. Should he require that our Government guarantee his literary rights as interminable, he would so encumber his valid claim that it would be futile to urge it. We simply mean by this, that Mr. Collins has got to take circumstances into account if he proposes to attain a practicable end.

The book-manufacturer is his partner in business, whose office is to take the author's literary creation and give it a material embodiment for public use. The business partner makes copies of the work, publishes it, and manages the sales. He generally furnishes the capital required to produce the desired editions. He pays for the labor of typesetting, for paper, printing, and binding, and when the books are sold he gives the author a stipulated part of the returns. But there is this difference between the parts of a book contributed by the author and by the publisher, that while the author's portion is protected by public law in a qualified way or not protected at all, on the other hand the part contributed by the publisher is protected always and everywhere, and as absolutely as any form of property is ever protected. The American Government will not protect Mr. Collins's right of property in his book, but in every court in the land it will protect the rights of the man who pirates it. The publisher may steal the author's part, but no man may steal the publisher's part without incurring all the penalties of theft. Publishers, therefore, as such, are in need of no protection; they are everywhere abundantly cared for.

Yet it is a great thing for the publisher to get the advantage of that monopoly in the commerce of a book which the author's copyright confers. When he secures this advantage, he can put whatever price he pleases upon the stock which he has worked up into a book. The materials and labor used have their fixed price in the market; but, when the book is produced, the publisher arbitrarily determines what it shall sell for. He is at liberty to fix the scale of his own profits, and as a business man he will always do it with sole reference to his own interest. Various considerations may influence his decision; but the most important fact is, that the copyrighted book will encounter no competition in the market. For these reasons it is of the greatest moment to publishers to make such arrangement with authors as will secure them the large possible benefits of copyright. If the author's interest in a book is represented by ten per cent., than the publisher's interest is represented by ninety per cent.; that is, the publisher is nine times more concerned to get this advantage than the author. Hence the strong desire of foreign publishers to get into the American market under cover of their authors' rights.

Now, Mr. Collins comes over here as the virtual agent and attorney of his English publishers. He first makes an outcry about the violation of his rights as an author in this country, and then he includes as one of these rights the liberty of carrying his publisher with him wherever he pleases. He will only be satisfied with an international copyright law in which this is conceded. But he here asks for a privilege, a convenience, a very profitable condition to his friends, and not for a guarantee of justice to himself. Mr. Collins has rights which ought to be regarded and defended in this country by international arrangements; his English publisher has no such rights, nor can he claim on any principle of justice that our Government should so shape its conventions that he can supply our market, if he pleases, with only English editions of his books. If there were no other way for the Americans to obtain his works, it might be different. Mr. Collins might well demand that there be no impediment to the supply of his publications that would hinder his realizing the full benefit of American sales. But, so long as there are plenty of publishers in this country eager to make contracts with him, it is no wrong—not even a hardship—for him to get what he rightfully asks, on the condition that his books shall be published here.

Mr. Collins unwittingly concedes the case when he undertakes to define his claim. He says: "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 and 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 formalities—and again my book is mine in France. In both cases my publisher (English or French) is chosen at my own free will." But the same right of control over his property in his book in a foreign country that the law gives him in his own country is exactly what it is now proposed that he should have. His native protection stops with the British Islands and hardly extends to the provinces; his French protection is bounded by the limits of France; and his protection here would be coextensive with our nationality. What more, then, can he ask than an international copyright treaty that shall enable him to register his book in Washington, by which it becomes his American property, with the liberty of playing his free-will from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the choice of a publisher?

Nearly fifty English authors of the highest character have recognized that their rights of property in their books in this country should not be complicated with the interests of their home publishers. They thus simplify the matter completely, and present to the American people the naked issue, Will you pay for what you appropriate? Will you protect our property rights as you protect those of your own authors? Will you render us the justice to which we are entitled by the moral judgment of the civilized world? Mr. Collins wants far more; but, if he has the slightest idea of getting it, we advise him to possess his soul in great patience and abstain from futile flurries, for he will assuredly have to wait a long time before he gets what he wants.


It is needless to call attention to Mr. George's vigorous and impressive article which opens this number of the "Monthly," on "The Kearney Agitation in California," as illustrative of the working of American political and social institutions. The name of the writer and the interest of the topic will cause his contribution to be carefully read. Mr. George closes by invoking the scientific spirit and the scientific method in the study of these phenomena, which he thinks demands the serious attention of the most thoughtful men.

This appeal is legitimate, and is prompted by the inevitable logic of the situation. There must be a far better general understanding of the working of social forces before anything can be hoped from remedial measures; but we are here confronted at the outset with difficulties of a very formidable character. One of the chief of these is that the spirit of our politics is radically antiscientific. It is essentially hostile to science because it cultivates systematic misrepresentation, while the first requirement of science is allegiance to truth. Science begins with morality. It implies rectitude of thought, exemption from prejudice and passion, and the utmost attainable accuracy in its representations. It is a school—the only school we have—for discipline in truthfulness. Partisan politics, on the contrary—and partisanship is the essence of politics—is a school of deception and falsehood, and all its influences are at war with the fundamental virtue of truthfulness. If it be thought we are going too far in saying that our political institutions educate the people to immorality, we appeal to the highest authority on moral subjects which our country has produced.

More than forty years ago Dr. William Ellery Channing gave a lecture in Boston on the subject of self-culture. In speaking of the means of self-improvement open to the people of this nation he refers to politics, or to the influence of our popular institutions in arousing the mental activity of citizens which thereby becomes a means of general self-education. But, having turned the customary patriotic compliment to this beneficent action of our form of government, Dr. Channing pauses, as if conscious that he had gone too far, and then proceeds in a very different strain to acknowledge that, as a matter of fact, no such benign result is gained. He declares, on the contrary, that the influence of politics is to produce a widespread demoralization by a subversion of all the cardinal virtues of character. He says:

It may be said that I am describing what free institutions ought to do for the character of the individual, not their natural effects; and the objection, I must own, is too true. Our institutions do not cultivate us, as they might and should; and the chief cause of the failure is plain. It is the strength of party spirit; and so blighting is its influence, so fatal to self-culture, that I feel myself bound to warn every man against it who has any desire of improvement. I do not tell you it will destroy your country. It wages a worse war against yourselves. Truth, justice, candor, fair-dealing, sound judgment, self-control, and kind affections, are its natural and perpetual prey. I do not say that you must take no side in politics. The parties which prevail around you differ in character, principles, and spirit, though far less than the exaggeration of
passion affirms; and, as far as conscience allows, a man should support that which he thinks host. In one respect, however, all parties agree. They all foster that pestilent spirit which I now condemn. In all of them party spirit rages. Associate men together for a common cause, be it good or bad, and array against them a body resolutely pledged to an opposite interest, and a new passion, quite distinct from the original sentiment which brought them together, a fierce, fiery zeal, consisting chiefly of aversion to those who differ from them, is roused within them into fearful activity. Human nature seems incapable of a stronger, more unrelenting passion. It is hard enough for an individual, when contending all alone for an interest or an opinion, to keep down his pride, willfulness, love of victory, anger, and other personal feelings. But let him join a multitude in the same warfare, and, without singular self-control, he receives into his single breast the vehemence, obstinacy, and vindictiveness of all. The triumph of his party becomes immeasurably dearer to him than the principle, true or false, which was the original ground of division. The conflict becomes a struggle, not for principle, but for power, for victory; and the desperateness, the wickedness, of such struggles, is the great burden of history. In truth, it matters little what men divide about, whether it be a foot of land or precedence in a procession. Let them but begin to fight for it, and self-will, ill-will, the rage for victory, the dread of mortification and defeat, make the trifle as weighty as a matter of life and death. The Greek or Eastern Empire was shaken to its foundation by parties which differed only about the merits of charioteers at the amphitheatre. Party spirit is singularly hostile to moral independence. A man, in proportion as he drinks into it, sees, hears, judges by the senses and understandings of his party. He surrenders the freedom of a man, the right of using and speaking his own mind, and echoes the applauses or maledictions with which the leaders or passionate partisans see fit that the country should ring. On all points parties are to be distrusted; but on no one so much as on the character of opponents. These, if you may trust what you hear, are always men without principle and truth, devoured by selfishness, and thirsting for their own elevation, though on their country's ruin. When I was young, I was accustomed to hear pronounced with abhorrence—almost with execration—the names of men who are now hailed by their former foes as the champions of grand principles, and as worthy of the highest public trusts.

This is a dark indictment, but Dr. Charming was a man who weighed his words. He represents partisan politics as a blighting influence, fatal to self-improvement, hostile to moral independence, and degrading to character. He says that "truth, justice, candor, fair-dealing, sound judgment, self-control, and kind affections, are its natural and perpetual prey." A system the spirit of which makes "truth" its "natural and perpetual prey," it is needless to say, is not favorable to science. Science can not grow, it can not exist, in such an atmosphere.

If it be said that Dr. Channing wrote forty years ago, the reply is that forty years have not mended matters. There is, on the contrary, every evidence that party ends are now pursued in this country with more recklessness of falsehood and more shameless unscrupulousness than ever before. That "all is fair in politics"—a maxim that would be scouted in the cock-pit and on the racecourse—is not a recent rule; but the bad arts of an inveterate partisanship have been gradually perfected. With our political progress principles are progressively eliminated from politics, and first-class men are driven from the field. More and more it is becoming the function of the people merely to ratify at the polls the proceedings of wire-pullers, plotters, intriguing demagogues, caucus bullies, and convention-desperadoes. It is notorious that our politics has passed into the hands of practiced professionals, who outmanœuvre straightforward men, and drive them to the wall. Everything is done by management and under false pretenses. Party excitement is stimulated by stirring up the meanest passions and by plying all the arts of detraction and falsehood. When the campaign opens, the sluices of slander soon run full. Here comes the last "Evening Post," representing the state of things in 1880. In a leader it. says: "As generally conducted, our Presidential campaigns are so volcanic outbursts of passion and prejudice, and are accompanied by such torrents of vulgar calumny, falsehood, and abuse, that they are anything but creditable to our self-respect and tastes. They not only let loose every viler form of uncharitableness and evil-speaking, but they are permitted to absorb the energies of society to such an extent that even commercial activity is arrested, and the best moral and social developments are paralyzed for the time. In these quadrennial saturnalia the participants, for the most part, take leave of their senses, and comport themselves like bedlamites or Mænads." In the national campaign preceding the last, one of the candidates, as we all remember, was constrained to say, "I hardly know whether I am running for the Presidency or the penitentiary." In the last campaign a Presidential candidate received the suffrages of a majority of the people of the United States, but he failed to get the office, and has ever since been hunted with libels and blackened with calumny, until multitudes regard him as a consummate knave, fit only for the State-prison.

In these vile practices of falsehood and detraction the whole country is implicated, for we are a nation of politicians. Politics is not only the dominant subject of thought, but its method is the dominant method of thinking. We have hundreds of colleges and thousands of common schools, multitudinous newspapers and countless pulpits, and all, as we say, for the promotion of public intelligence and the elevation of public morality; but, when election comes, professors, teachers, editors, and clergymen, all join in "saving their country" by the means which Dr. Channing has so fittingly characterized. Whoever is in the pulpit, the pews are filled with politicians; whoever is editor, the subscribers are politicians; all the instructors in our public schools are political stipendiaries, and politicians dictate the studies. Indeed, the reason given for the very existence of these schools is political. As for the colleges, they are more than anything else workshops for the manufacture of politicians; as was sufficiently attested by President Hayes, the other day, when he told them at Yale that the great office-holders are mere figure-heads shaped by the institutions where officeholders are made.

So rooted and so fortified is this political system which perpetually preys upon truth and justice, corrupts the morals of the nation, and flames out in Kearneyism and kindred scandals of a reckless partisanship which disgrace every State in the Union. But, powerfully intrenched as it is, we believe that this system is destined to be ultimately improved if not renovated. But it will be slow work, and the reform will not proceed from within. Politicians engendered by the system will not transform it. The amending and elevating influences must come from without. Men must be thoroughly freed from the system before they can deal with it efficiently. The first thing needed by the American citizen is to gain an independent position for the critical study of the institutions of his country; and this can only be done by vigorous individual revolt against party domination. The powerful spell of partisan influence must be broken before men can be qualified to pursue the study of politics by the scientific method, for under the bias of party feeling nothing is seen aright. Personal independence of action in political matters, freedom from the trammels of partisanship, is the true preparation for the intelligent investigation of political questions. Multitudes of our best people are already thoroughly disgusted with politics. Thousands will not go to the polls except under pressure of violent campaign excitement. Politicians denounce this as unpatriotic; but there can be no duty to one's country so imperative as rebellion against party machinations and behests. In this growth of Protestantism against the immoral tyranny of the old political church is our hope. Mr. George rightly appeals to the spirit and method of science, applied to political and social affairs, as the great agency of national redemption, and time will show that the appeal is well taken. The great love of intellectual advancement is bound in time to give us a science of politics grounded in principles of truth, instead of the quackish arts of partisanship, just as certainly as it has given us a science of navigation, agriculture, and chemical manufactures.