decorated initial 'T'he first American "pirate" was probably Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), who was, among other things, a Philadelphia printer who re-published the works of British authors in the eighteenth century without seeking their permission or offering remuneration. Novelists, of course, were not the only writers affected. The complaints of poet William Wordsworth, for example, which began quietly in 1808, grew louder and more eloquent over the course of the next three and a half decades; by 1837 the matter had begun to absorb large amounts of his time and energy. He went to London to lobby the House of Commons, enlisting the aid of the popular dramatist Thomas Noon Talford as his parliamentary champion. During both his North American reading tours of 1842 and 1867-68 Dickens lobbied the American Congress to recognize the copyright of British authors, but made little headway because American publishing was undercapitalized and needed to be able to plunder British and continental works in order to survive. Indeed, during his first visit Dickens's raising the controversial issue made him anathema in certain political circles and in the American press; his responses to the criticisms that appeared in American newspapers are best reflected in Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-3).

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In publishing The Pickwick Papers in volume form after the book's epoch-making serial run in 1837, Dickens dedicated the work to dramatist and politician Thomas Noon Talford, partly because this writer as an M. P. had introduced a copyright bill in the House of Commons in 1836. Dickens was already aware of how much money he was losing as a result of massive violations of his copyright both at home (via theatrical adaptations) and abroad (via cheap American re-prints). As a shorthand reporter for The Mirror of Parliament and the True Sun (1831-33), young Dickens had followed the copyright question avidly from the press gallery. In 1835, while a reporter for The Morning Chronicle, Dickens applauded the efforts of the young barrister who had been elected Member of Parliament for Reading in 1835 to introduce a copyright bill, which eventually became law in 1842. In early 1844, Talford would act as Dickens's attorney in the case against Richard Egan Lee and Henry Hewitt for their flagrant plagiarism of A Christmas Carol.

Young Charles Dickens, in the process of being lionized by his Yankee readers, dared to assert that, had American publishers paid Sir Walter Scott appropriate royalties for his works re-printed in the United States from Marmion in 1808 to Castle Dangerous in 1832, he would not have faced bankruptcy in the middle of his career and would not have died at the age of 61, broken in body and mind by years of financial difficulties, and "unjustly deprived of his rightful income" (Ackroyd 350). Further, he alluded to the disgraceful treatment of Captain Frederick Marryat (1792-1848), retired Royal Naval officer turned author, who established residency by means of his 1837 tour, but was subsequently denied copyright protection by American courts unless he were prepared to renounce his status as a British subject and become an American citizen.

Dickens was essentially using the plight of these authors to argue his own case, for as fast as he turned out The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and other early novels, American publishing houses snapped them up and published them in cheap editions which sold in the thousands across the country, pocketing the proceeds without sending so much as a letter of thanks to Boz. The piracies began as early as the publication of Sketches by Boz in 1834.

He bewailed, ironically, "the exquisite justice of never deriving sixpence from an enormous American sale of all my books." Having already spoken up for increased copyright protection in Britain and for a British-American agreement, he had it in mind to advance a just cause from which he and others would benefit. Ignorant of the complications of copyright politics and of the recent severe depression, he crossed the Atlantic with the naïve expectation that in this republic of his imagination elemental notions of fairness would triumph over politics and power relationships, as if America were some elegant utopia. . . .(Kaplan 124-125)

The rowdy American press, particularly in New York, soon disabused Dickens of his utopian notions vis a vis copyright. Americans, expecting him to be grateful for their warm reception, were staggered when this young British goodwill ambassador at the beginning of 1842, at a dinner held in his honour in Boston, dared to criticize them as pirates while urging the merits of international copyright, which at that point in American history would have seen vast amounts of Yankee capital heading overseas with little reciprocation. He did not back down. A week later, in Hartford, he argued that a native American literature would flourish only when American publishers were compelled by law to pay all writers their due, rather than being able to publish the works of any foreign author for free, a bad custom which only serve to discourage literary production by American citizens. Although the American people were divided on the question of the United States's joining the international copyright union, book, newspaper, and magazine publishers were utterly opposed, and successfully lobbied against any such move in Congress. Undaunted, Dickens circulated a pro-copyright letter which he and a number of other British writers had signed, firm in the belief of the righteousness of their cause.

Indeed it may be said that if royalties which ought to have been paid in the United States on the novels of Scott, Dickens, and a host of others, on the dramatic adaptations of their stories, and on the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan when first produced, were now to be handed over with compound interest, Great Britain would no longer be a debtor nation to the United States. The contra account of American authors whose royalties were not paid by English publishers over the same period would be a drop in the ocean by comparison. (Pearson 106)

Dickens showed great courage but little tact in assailing American public opinion on this vexing matter while the United States was paying him honours worthy of a national liberator. That he had not mentioned this issue in advance meant that his adoring audiences, taken by surprise, felt chagrined by the criticisms of this obviously mercenary young upstart who had come to their shores to take their money at the theatre door and again in the bookshop. Ironically, he had his sympathizers; on the first visit, his case had been seconded by fiction-writer Washington Irving (1783-1859); on his second visit, by such eminent writers as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the biographer James Parton, all of whom had suffered to a lesser extent from the lack of reciprocal British-American copyright legislation. Although five years older than Dickens, Longfellow (1807-1882) was as yet little known in Europe, since he had published only Voices of the Night (1839), Ballads(1841), and Poems on Slavery (1842) at the time.

The opposition maintained that literature, like all imaginative creations, should not be regulated by law and commerce, that undercapitalized nations, without public libraries, needed inexpensive access to ideas and entertainment that they could not generate themselves or afford to purchase at high rates, and that the free availability to publishers of an author's works did more to advance his reputation and long-term earnings than the restricted circulation created by the higher price of books on which a copyright royalty was paid. (Kaplan 127-128)

Back in England, Dickens swore to avenge himself on any and all pirates. His first great opportunity came with the publication of A Christmas Carol on 19 December, 1843, for within two weeks Peter Parley's Illuminated Library brought out a 'condensed' and 're-originated' edition entitled A Christmas Ghost Story, selling at a mere penny a piece. Two days later, on January 8th, 1844, Dickens filed for a court injunction to halt publication; the injunction granted on the 10th, he then set out to sue Parley's owners, Richard Egan Lee and Henry Hewitt. His victory was Pyrrhic, for the piratical firm declared bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay his court costs of £700, against a profit of only £230 on the sale of six thousand copies by the end of 1843, according to Forster's Life of Charles Dickens, but likely closer to £130, according to Peter Ackroyd. At this point in his life, copyright was no mere abstract question of business ethics for Dickens as images of the debtors' prison swam before his eyes.

Related Materials


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Barnes, James J., and Patience P. "Copyright." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York: Garland, 1988. Pp. 192-3.

Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Have: Yale UP, 1990.

Eilenberg, Susan. "Mortal Pages: Wordsworth and the Reform of of Copyright." ELH56, 2 (1989): 351-374.

Guida, Fred. A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations: Dickens's Story on Screen and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens, A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.

Kappel, Andrew J., and Patten, Robert L. "Dickens' Second American Reading Tour and His 'Utterly Worthless and Profitless' American Rights." Dickens Studies Annual7 (1978): 1-33.

Ley, J. W. T. The Dickens Circle: A Narrative of the Novelist's Friendships. New York: Dutton, 1919.

Nicol, Eric. The Astounding Long-lost Letters of Dickens of the Mounted. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.

Nowell-Smith, Simon. International Copyright Law and The Publisher in the Reign of Queen Victoria. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968.

O'Neill, Juliet. "Famous Authors Fought for Law Now Being Used as Trade Battle Fodder." Victoria Times-Colonist (rpt. Canadian Press) 16 June 1986.

Pearson, Hesketh. Dickens. London: Cassell, 1949.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Created 5 January 2001

Last modified 10 August 2013