Speech on Copyright
The humble petition of William Wordsworth, of Rydal, in the county of Westmoreland, Sheweth,
That your petitioner is on the point of attaining his seventieth year ; that since his first literary production was given to the press forty-six years have elapsed, during which time he has at intervals published various original works, down to the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty, five.
That the copyright in all these works is unassigned, but that in a great part of them, under the existing law, that exclusive right is already contingent upon the duration of his life, and the same would be the case in a very few years with much the larger portion of the remainder, including the most important of these works, a poem entitled " The Excursion," which, in the event of his decease, would become public property in less than four years from the present time.
That the short term of copyright now allowed by the law is a grievance common to all authors whose works are not liable to be superseded ; but your petitioner takes leave respectfully to represent that this grievance falls still more heavily upon those who, like himself, have engaged and persevered in literary labour, less with the expectation of producing immediate or speedy effect, than with a view to interest and benefit society, though remotely, yet permanently.
That it has happened to your petitioner, in consequence of having written with this aim, that his works, though never out of demand, have made their way slowly into general circulation ; yet he may be permitted to state a fact bearing obviously upon the bill for the extension of the term of copyright now before your honourable house, that within the last four years these works have brought the author a larger pecuniary emolument than during the whole of the preceding years in which they have been before the public. This advantage would have in a great measure been lost to his family had he died a few years since.
That your petitioner ventures to submit to your honourable house his conviction, that the duration of copyright, as the law now stands, is far from being co-extensive with the claims of natural affection: a hardship which will be still more apparent when the condition of distinguished authors is viewed in contrast with that of men who rise to eminence in other professions or employments, whereby they not only acquire wealth, but have patronage at command, or obtain the means of forming family establishments in business, which enable them to provide at once for their descendants, or for others who have claims upon them. He also trusts, that to the wisdom of the House it will appear that the law, while it fails to pay due regard to the reasonable claims of natural affection, is also at variance, in an unwarrantable degree, with the principles that govern the right of property in all other matters, mechanical inventions and chemical discoveries only excepted, between which, however, and works in several of the highest departments of literature, there is in quality, circumstance, mode of operation, and oftentimes in origin, a broad line of distinction, as was shewn when the subject in the preceding session was under the consideration of Parliament.
That in answer to the objection that the proposed measure would check the circulation of books, it may be urged, first—that to a great majority of publications the measure would be indifferent, they being adequately protected by the law as it now is ; that the works which it would affect, though comparatively few, must be presumed to be of superior merit, and therefore to be those that most deserve or require the aid which the bill proposes ; further, that from the daily increase of readers, through the spread of education, and the growing wealth of the community, it must become more and more the interest of the holders of the copyright to sell at a low price, and to prepare editions suitable to the means of different classes of society, and that consequently the apprehension of a prolonged privilege being injurious to the people is entitled to little or no regard.
That it is highly desirable that the printing of works should be under the control of their authors' representatives, however long those works may have been before the public, in order to secure copies correctly printed, and to preclude the sending forth books without the author's recent or last editions or emendations, by those publishers who are ready to seize upon expiring copyrights.
That finally (and to this, above all, your petitioner respectfully entreats the attention of your honourable house) the bill has for its main object, to relieve men of letters from the thraldom of being forced to court the living generation, to aid them in rising above degraded taste and slavish prejudice, and to encourage them to rely upon their own impulses, or to leave them with less excuse if they should fail to do so.
That your petitioner therefore implores your honourable house that the bill before it, for extending the term of copyright, may pass into a law ; a prayer which he makes in full faith that in this, as in all other cases, justice is capable of working out its own expediency.