Meera Nair

A Christmas Carol

In Posts on December 19, 2011 at 7:15 am

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843

On this day in 1843, Charles Dickens’ work, A Christmas Carol, was published.

Received with acclaim, unauthorized copies of the work appeared on the market within weeks. Although Dickens had ignored piracy before, he responded with legal action to the circulation of a “re-originated” version of his cherished Christmas tale.  Kate Sutherland, writer and associate professor of Osgoode Hall Law School, explains the business circumstances that prompted Dickens to take action and the emotional drive that propelled him to continue. Despite success in court, Dickens came away poorer for the experience.

Dickens is a noted figure in copyright lore — his efforts to have British copyrights recognized by American printers were famous, albeit largely unsuccessful. During an 1842 tour of the United States, he spoke frequently on the issue of copyright. Dickens, like many English authors and publishers, resented the practice whereby Americans reprinted English works without concern of recompense.  In Copyrights and Copywrongs, Siva Vaidhyanathan writes: “When Dickens’ account of his tour, American Notes,  came out in 1843, fifty thousand pirated copies sold in the United States in three days.” And when A Christmas Carol was published, “London readers … would have to pay the equivalent of $2.50 in 1843. An American Dickens’ fan would have to pay only six cents (p.50-51).”

However, American printing practices would not change quickly. Cheap literature served the United States well, both in terms of educating the public and developing a robust printing industry. Indeed, the U.S. Copyright Act of 1790 included what is best described as an invitation to piracy. Section Five stated:

That nothing in this act shall be construed to extend to prohibit the importation or vending, reprinting or publishing within the United States, of any map, chart, book or books, written, printed, or published by any person not a citizen of the United States, in foreign parts or places without the jurisdiction of the United States.

Perhaps realizing that England had little leverage with their renegade colony, the Report of a Royal Commission on copyright (1876-1878)  described the American attitude in very generous terms:

The main difficulty undoubtedly arises from the fact that … original works published in America are, as yet, less numerous than those published in Britain. This naturally affords a temptation to the Americans to take advantage of the works of the older country….

The Commission was also well aware of the practice of private business arrangements between some English copyright holders and American publishers, whereby the Americans paid handsomely for advance sheets of the latest English works.

The Anglo-American disputes and negotiations, coupled with the strictures of Imperial copyright law, took its toll on Canada’s printing industry. Even when an Anglo-American copyright agreement was eventually established in 1891, the United States took care to ensure that the conditions remained favourable to their own industry.*

Courtesy of Project Gutenberg and David Widger,  readers can enjoy the first edition of A Christmas Carol (complete with original illustrations by John Leech) here.  As 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, festivities are planned in England and around the world; check out the Dickens 2012 website.  Another site of note is Charles Dickens Page by David Perdue. Dedicated to the memory of his late wife, Sandra Perdue, his aim is to bring “the genius of Dickens to a new generation of readers.”

* See Meera Nair, “The Copyright Act of 1889 — A Canadian Declaration of Independence.” Canadian Historical Review. Vol. 90, Issue 1, March 2009, pp.1-28.

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