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 orwww.loc.gov/shop/.

Remembering the Real Fifties

(The following is a guest post by Tom Wiener of the Library’s Publishing Office and editor of “The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine.) Look Magazine was a large format, glossy-paged publication that emphasized photography as much as words. Published between 1937 and 1971, it is recalled now as the poor […]

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage: Feliz Cumpleaños, Hispanic Division

(Today is the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is celebrated annually Sept. 15-Oct. 15. This year, the Library’s Hispanic Division marks its 75th anniversary. The following is an article from the July-August 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine .) Dating back to the middle ages, the Library’s Hispanic world collections are the largest in […]

Pics of the Week: 2014 National Book Festival

Now in its 14th year, the Library of Congress National Book Festival welcomed book lovers to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center — a new venue for this year — on Saturday. More than 100 authors, poets and illustrators were featured throughout the day and evening, packing crowds into pavilions such as History & Biography, […]

The Last Word: E.L. Doctorow

(The following is an article in the July-August 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. Award-winning novelist E.L. Doctorow discusses the role of fiction and storytelling. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)  The story is the most ancient way of knowing. It preceded writing. It is the world’s first system for collecting […]

Out of the Ashes

(The following is an article written by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer for the Center for the Book, featured in the September-October 2012 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. Aug. 24 was the 200th anniversary of the burning of the Capitol building and the Library.) The story of the phoenix that rises triumphantly from its […]

But Did The Author Like the Movie?

Ever wonder, while watching a film made from a novel you’ve known and loved, what the author of the book thought about that movie? Whether they thought it was true to their vision? Whether they were annoyed at what landed on the cutting-room floor? Four great modern novelists will share a dialogue on just that […]

Letters About Literature: Dear Jhumpa Lahiri

In this final installment of our Letters About Literature spotlight, we feature the Level 3 National Honor-winning letter of  Riddhi Sangam of Saratoga, Calif., who wrote to Jhumpa Lahiri, author of “The Namesake.” Letters About Literature, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author […]

Letters About Literature: Dear George Orwell

We’re rounding out our spotlight of letters from the Letters About Literature initiative, a national reading and writing program that asks young people in grades 4 through 12 to write to an author (living or deceased) about how his or her book affected their lives. National and honor winners were announced last month. You can read the […]

Slammin’ those Books OPEN!

This year’s Library of Congress National Book Festival is going to segue from a big day of authors for all ages to an evening of excitement – starting with a poetry slam titled “Page [Hearts] Stage” at 6 p.m. in the Poetry & Prose Pavilion. The festival will be held from 10 a.m.–10 p.m. on […]