James Payn vs. Victorian Copyright Trolls

Copyright trolls, I thought, were a contemporary invention. Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, states that it began in the 2000s. That turns out not to be the case.

james payn Victorian copyright trolls

James Payn, caricatured in ‘Vanity Fair,’ 1888.

I mentioned yesterday, when I talked about Victorian editor James Payn and Charles Dickens, that I was finding some amusing bits from Payn’s “Some Literary Recollection.”

This time, we learn that in the Victorian age, novel titles were subject to copyright just as much as the prose. Works were placed on the Stationers’ Register, a practice which began before Shakespeare’s time. As we’ll see, the way they did it led to certain abuses, according to Payn.

While on the subject of book titles I may say that it is essential to choose one that has not been used before. The law is in this matter very unreasonable, for, while establishing a copyright in titles, it affords no means of discovering whether the one you have decided upon is original or not. While compelling an author to register his book in Stationers’ Hall, it makes no proviso for the exhibition of the name of the book; and, as the register—from some miserable economy—only shows the author’s name, the information desired cannot be obtained. Hence proceeds a regular system of robbery.

In the case of a known novel of course there is no difficulty; no author would take ‘Never Too Late to Mend’ or ‘The Woman in White’ for his title; but a totally unknown book may have a good name, which occurs quite naturally to more than one person. Who can remember the names of the still-born novels of the last forty years? Nay, every week, there appears in the ‘Penny Storyteller,’ or the ‘Penny Novelist,’ some tale the name of which is protected by copyright. And what possible precaution can prevent this right being involuntary infringed?

Enterprising publishers of worthless books are always on the look-out for a coincidence of this kind, and exact their blackmail from the unfortunate author. There is no pretence of any harm being done to them; indeed, nothing but good, of course, can result to the still-born novel from its having the same name as a new and much better one; but the law is on the side of the rogues. As I have written many novels, and have been obliged to give them names, I have suffered from this sharp practice more than most people. I have given twenty pounds, and on one occasion even forty pounds, for the privilege of calling my own book by its own name; but that was when I was comparatively a young writer.

Payn has some pungent advice (at least, for his times) on how to handle these Victorian copyright trolls:

I should not fall so easy a victim to these literary brigands now. Though the law is, as I have said, unreasonable, the judges are not so, and if any such case as I have mentioned should be tried upon its merits I should have no fear for the result. A trial is the very last thing that our persecutors desire; what they want is ransom.

My advice to my literary brethren is to resist all such extortioners; it is not necessary to be rude to them (‘the Court,’ if the case proceeds, does not approve of that); instead of saying outright, ‘Go to the devil,’ use a synonym: refer them to a solicitor.

It’s not quite “publish and be damned,” but Payn was no Wellington, either.