Mark Twain & Copyright

(The following is an article written by Harry Katz in the September-October 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. Katz is a former curator in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division and author of a new Library publication, “Mark Twain’s America.”) 

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) poses in his classic white suit, 1905. George Edward Perine, Prints and Photographs Division.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) poses in his classic white suit, 1905. George Edward Perine, Prints and Photographs Division.

Samuel Clemens’ fight for the intellectual property rights to Mark Twain’s works helped protect the nation’s authors at home and abroad.

On May 7, 1874, Samuel L. Clemens–the American author and humorist known as Mark Twain–wrote to Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, seeking copyright protection for his pamphlet and its cover design. In 1870, the Library of Congress had become the federal repository for commercial and intellectual copyright; authors routinely submitted samples of their work to the Librarian of Congress to document their legal claims.

Accompanying Clemens’ letter was an illustration from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the landmark comic sketch that made Twain an overnight literary sensation in 1865 under the title “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog.” Twain was known as “the people’s author” for his wildly popular comic sketches and hugely successful books, “The Innocents Abroad” (1869), “Roughing It” (1872), and “The Gilded Age” (1873, co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner).

Pamphlet for which Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) sought a copyright from the Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division.

Pamphlet for which Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) sought a copyright from the Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division.

It would be several years before his publication of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but Twain had already discovered the price of success–unauthorized editions of his writings were being published throughout the English- speaking world without due compensation for the author.

From early in his writing career, Twain was victimized by unscrupulous publishers who simply transcribed his published writings into unauthorized editions which were sold without the author’s permission. Pirated editions of his works infuriated Twain, who went to great lengths, traveling to Canada and England, to ensure his copyright and protect his intellectual property. Twain told a reporter, “I always take the trouble to step over in Canada and stand on English soil. Thus secure myself and receive money for my books sold in England.”

Twain became so frustrated by literary piracy that from time to time he considered giving up books to write plays, successfully staging versions of “The Gilded Age,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “Pudd’nhead Wilson.”

Twain also became a leading advocate for an international copyright law, which was enacted by Congress in 1891 to extend limited protection to foreign copyright holders from select nations.

In 1900, he appeared before the British House of Lords, and in 1906 made a stunning entrance into a U.S. congressional committee meeting on copyright. As one observer noted of Twain’s unveiling of his trademark white suit, “Nothing could have been more dramatic than the gesture with which he flung off his long loose overcoat, and stood forth in white from his feet to the crown of his silvery head.”

Letter from Samuel Clemens to Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford requesting a copyright for his pamphlet, May 7, 1874. Prints and Photographs Division.

Letter from Samuel Clemens to Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford requesting a copyright for his pamphlet, May 7, 1874. Prints and Photographs Division.

Twain was in favor of perpetual copyright protection. But he supported a bill that would extend the term of copyright from 42 years to the author’s life plus 50 years. The copyright law of 1909–the law’s third general revision– provided for a term of only 28 years, plus a single renewal term of 28 years. The life-plus-50 term was not established in U.S. law until 1978.

At its annual meeting in New York City in 1957, the American Bar Association adopted a special resolution that “recognized the efforts of Mark Twain, who was so greatly responsible for the laws relating to copyrights which have meant so much to all free peoples throughout the world.”

Katz will discuss “Mark Twain’s America” at the Library at noon on Oct. 22 in the Mumford Room, located on the sixth floor of the James Madison Building at 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C.

Mark Twain’s America,” a 256-page hardcover book, with 300 color and black-and-white images, is available for $40 in bookstores nationwide and in the Library of Congress Shop, 10 First St. S.E., Washington, D.C., 20540-4985. Credit-card orders are taken at (888) 682-3557 or www.loc.gov/shop/.

2 Comments

  1. Siva Vaidhyanathan
    September 30, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    The story of Twain and copyright is not so straightforward. Please see my chapter on Twain in my book, Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (NYU Press, 2001).

  2. Albert Kaplan
    September 30, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Tomorrow morning I will try to reach Harry Katz by telephone. If I am unable to reach him, please tell him that several years ago I was able to acquire to ambrotype images of Samuel Clemens, very likely made in Nevada in 1861. They can be viewed at http://www.kaplancollection.com.

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