The pioneers who gave us the first true Copyright Act

Talfourd and Mahon 001

Writers of all kinds should be grateful for the work done of their behalf by two men, the lawyer, MP, and writer, Thomas Noon Talfourd (1795 – 1854) and the Tory MP and historian Lord Mahon (1805 – 75), who were the driving forces behind the Literary Copyright Act of 1842. But this was not the first Act that granted authors rights over their work. The first to do so became law in 1709. Up to this time copyright was restricted to booksellers who, as publishers, would buy up all rights from authors for a fixed sum. The 1709 Act first made it legal to anyone to own a copyright—even authors, although it gave them a meagre fourteen years. A further Act of 1790 extended this period to 28 years. Although this was an improvement, it still meant that a young writer like Dickens, whose Pickwick Papers was dedicated to Talfourd in 1837, could not expect to profit from his early works beyond his mid fifties. It is probable that his friendship with the novelist prompted Talfourd to pursue legislation that would benefit writers like him and to this end he presented an initial version of the 1842 bill to Parliament in 1837.

This bill failed, but Talfourd remained determined. Further bills were presented and at last, in 1842, the Literary Copyright Act became law. This extended copyright to the life of the author plus seven years, and where copyright already existed in a work under earlier legislation, it was to be extended to that provided by the new Act. The Act was further amended in 1911 and several times since.

So here is a rather rare item –a letter from Lord Mahon to T. N. Talfourd written six years before the famous Act was passed. Although the issue of copyright is not mentioned in the letter, the contents do suggest that the two men, who shared literary interests, were on friendly terms. Talfourd had sought election to the Athenaeum, a prestigious London club which numbered many writers, artists and scientists among its members. He was unsuccessful on this occasion, not because, as Mahon explains, the committee doubted Talfourd’s ‘eminent qualification ‘, but because there were insufficient committee members present to vote.

Although Talfourd’s literary career was unremarkable, he became a guiding presence on the Bench and died at the comparatively early age of 59 while delivering judgement in court. [R.M.Healey]

A Scottish Seal of Approval

Another Jot from the loyal RH, scholar, idler, gent and swordsman. The book mentioned is a signed book of mathematics (sort of) from 1775 and not in the British Library but obtainable online as we speak, signed by the author, for a paltry $50.

A Scottish Seal of Approval

Remember those Edwardian newspaper ads for Dr Collis Browne’s ‘Chlorodyne’—a patent medicine that purported to clear up cholera and diarrhoea, but which would certainly not cure the former, as it  contained mainly laudanum and tincture of cannabis, both of which, incidentally, would be banned today. Every bottle had Browne’s printed signature on it. Going a little further back, each label for Warren’s patent boot blacking bore the printed signature of its manufacturer, a fact to which  the teenage Charles Dickens, whose job in 1824 involved sticking these labels onto the pots, could attest .

I cannot recall any grocery or pharmaceutical product that bore the manufacturer’s signature before the days of Warren, but I might be wrong. Robert Warren was a marketing pioneer (as John Strachan’s excellent study, Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period, discusses at some length). But look in vain in Strachan for books of the Romantic period that bore the author’s printed signature. As for a handwritten signature, I’ve come across none whatsoever. You have to go back  to the Age of Johnson to find just one example. The second edition of Tables of Interest at 4, 4 1/2 and 5 per cent, which Cadell and Murray bought out in 1775 warns the buyer on page two not to accept  any book bearing Mr Thomson’s name on the title page that does not also feature his actual signature. So there it is, written in ink, at the bottom of page two. Amazing !

The reason for all this wariness must have something to do with the frequent acts of book piracy that prevailed before the Copyright Act was passed in 1842. It would seem that the first edition of Mr Thomson’s book had been a victim of piracy soon after it had appeared in Edinburgh in 1768.Book piracy in the 1760s seems to have been particularly prevalent. My own edition of Pope’s Works, which came out a year earlier, was a pirated edition by A. Donaldson, a notorious offender from Scotland, who may have been the culprit in the case of Thomson’s Tables.