THERE has never been a better opportunity for securing international copyright between England and America than the present moment offers. The renewal of cordial relations between the two governments renders a great many acts of justice practicable which have heretofore seemed visionary. And international copyright is a measure, too, no longer suggested by motives of justice only. The rapid increase in the value and importance of American books brings prudence to the aid of morality. Letters of marque, as long as we had no commercial marine ourselves, were very good credentials on the high seas of literature. But now that rich freights put out from American as well as English ports, the case becomes different. On every ground it is important that the barbarous system of pillage should cease. If the movement now on foot to secure a copyright convention succeeds, it will be quite as much a cause of satisfaction here as it can be in England.
The movement is threatened, however, with a grave danger,—a danger which has before now done the copyright cause serious damage,—and that is, that, amid the conflicting claims of those engaged in the manufacture of books, the authors' rights may be lost sight of. Already we hear that the various trades remotely connected with the manufacture of books are appointing committees to represent their interests in the approaching struggle and to obtain their due share of protection. But if the contest for an international copyright is to be managed like the annual pig-iron conflict, or the wool fight, ending in a compromise by which every interest gets a certain amount of protection at the expense of the public, it will certainly be of little service either to England, America, or humanity at large. What is needed is a legal protection for property in ideas; in other words, an authors' copyright.
Of all plans which have been suggested, the fairest and simplest would be that of absolute free trade, the legalization of the author's property in his work, with absolute liberty of disposal. This plan would make the copyright system of all English-speaking people the same. The author would copyright his book and sell the right of publication to any one he pleased, whether in London, Calcutta, or Chicago. Under this system the practice would perhaps grow up of selling restricted copyrights (as patents are now sold) for a particular country or state. The English author who wished to gain the ear of the English public would sell the right of publication to an English publisher, restricting the sale to England. If he wished, on the other hand, to introduce his book to the American market, he would doubtless sell to an American publisher.
If this system cannot be introduced, another readily suggests itself which will satisfy all the reasonable demands of British as well as American authors. Provide that the British author may, by taking the necessary formal steps, secure an American copyright which shall vest absolutely in him; provide that the American author may do the same in England. It is for this arrangement that the English authors are now petitioning, and as far as the publishers of the two countries are concerned it is perfectly equitable. The demands of the British publishers have hitherto been always counted among the obstacles to the negotiation of a convention; but the interests of the publishers are obviously distinct from those of authors. Whatever valid claims they may have will stand a far better chance of recognition when the principle of copyright has become part of the international law of England and America.