The Reward of Authors

The Reward of Authors.

To the Editor of Liberty:

In my judgment the discussion on copyright in your paper, as well as in the Twentieth Century, has drifted into fields in which the bearing on a rational foundation is totally lost. The only basis on which the question must stand or fall is that of social expediency, that of justice. Is it expedient, is the happiness of society furthered, if a right of ownership to his literary productions is extended to the author, in the sense in which it is expedient to extend to the hatter an exclusive right to the possession of his hats or whatever he can get for them in free exchange? To this question only one answer appears possible, and this is an affirmative answer. (1)

Were it considered proper for any publisher to copy any new work without the author’s consent, the authorized publisher should be obliged to compete with the copying publisher, and could therefore in no way afford to remunerate the author for his labor. And, authors having no earthly chance of being financially remunerated by any other means, they would simply not write, and we should be without a literature. (2) It cannot avail to say that some would write notwithstanding, feeling fully remunerated by one sentiment or another. It might as well be said that the hatter, even if the hats he produces are confiscated for the general good, will work for the fame of making superior hats, or the shoe-maker, for the honor of producing the best-fitting shoes, or that all workmen will emulate their superiors in the endeavor to excel them. (3) This argument would consistently lead us to rank communism, for it cannot be denied that in a communistic state all kinds of commodities would be made; but is this a sound reason for advocating communism? (3)(4) I think not. If we want good hats, we must give a substantial inducement to those who make them. Why should we not offer the same to the authors if we feel gratified by reading their works?

Now, then, if expediency dictates to the truly intelligent to abstain from copying literary works without the consent of the author,—and without a unanimous abstinence of this kind we should be without their works,—then the right of ownership in literary works is just, and in an ideal society, such as the Anarchists picture, a unanimous sanction of exclusive use of literary productions must prevail. (5)

Before concluding, please permit me a few remarks. If public abandonment to the author of the right to publish his productions is necessary to augment the happiness of a people, by giving them a literature, then the infringement of such exclusive right is a breach of equal freedom in the sense in which equal freedom is violated by a failure of abstaining from appropriating the produce of the hatter, since the law of equal freedom is deduced from the premise of the attainment of a maximum of happiness. (6) And if anyone takes liberties that violate the equal liberty of others, would [6] you advocate to apply some measure that would tend to limit this liberty? (7) If not, then what is your conception of freedom, and what of freedom as qualified by Spencer’s proviso?

Hugo Bilgram.

Philadelphia, January 3, 1891.

It gave me considerable satisfaction to try to answer Mr. Yarros’s argument for copyright, because Mr. Yarros and I start from a principle which we hold in common, and, if one can show that the other deviates from it, then a point is gained. It gives me much less satisfaction to answer Mr. Bilgram, because I have to follow him through a series of considerations based upon a standpoint which I must begin by repudiating, so that the result in any case cannot be particularly helpful.

(1) Nevertheless, impossible as it may appear, I answer this question in the negative. I admit social expediency as a test of social solutions. But what is social expediency? To me the highest social expediency consists in adherence to general rational principles of social conduct. These principles are matters of discovery. The principle of property is already discovered,—namely the exclusive control by each individual of the results of his exploitation of nature, so far as he may have it without impairing the equal right and opportunity of every other individual to similarly exploit nature. I maintain that the hatter may be secured, forcibly if necessary, in the exclusive right to possess or sell his hats, without impairing the equal right of any other person. I maintain that the author cannot be forcibly secured in the exclusive right to possess or sell an arrangement of words which he has made public, without impairing the equal right of every other person. I argued this question at length in thel ast number of Liberty. It is the question which must be settled before any progress can be made in this controversy. It is the question which Mr. Yarros and I are discussing. It is the question which Mr. Bilgram declines to discuss on the ground that it is an irrational foundation. I must simply disagree with Mr. Bilgram, and turn his criticism back upon himself.

(2) I deny that, in the absence of copyright and in the presence of competition, authors would have no earthly chance of being financially remunerated. In what I shall say under this head, I shall speak as a book publisher and an expert, and I claim for my statements as much authority as may rightfully be awarded to expert testimony. It is a rule, to which exceptions are very rare, that, even in the absence of copyright, competing editions are not published except of books the demand for which has already been large enough to more than reasonably reward both author and publisher for their labor. Take, for instance, a paper novel that retails at fifty cents. We will suppose that for this book there is a demand of ten thousand copies. These copies cost the publisher to make and market, say, seventeen cents each. He pays the author five cents for each copy sold,—that is, the customary royalty of ten per cent. of the retail price. The total cost to the publisher, then, is twenty-two cents per copy. He sells these books to the jobbers at twenty-five cents each, leaving himself a profit of three cents a copy. He probably has orders from the book-trade for three to six thousand copies before publication. If the final demand is not to exceed the edition of ten thousand copies, the sale of the balance will drag along slowly and more slowly, through several years. During this time the author will receive as his royalty five hundred dollars in payment for a book which he was probably less than sixty days in writing. I maintain that he is more than reasonably paid. No rival edition of his book has sprung up (we are supposing an absence of copyright) for the reason that the demand did not prove large enough to induce a second publisher to risk the expense of making a set of plates. But now let us suppose that on publication so brisk a demand had immediately arisen as to show that the sale would be twenty thousand instead of ten thousand. The publisher, as before, would have sold three to six thousand in advance, and the balance of the first ten thousand would have disappeared before any rival publisher could have made plates and put an edition on the market. As before, then, both author and publisher would have been more than adequately paid. But at this point steps in the rival. Having to pay no author and to do no advertising, he can produce the book at say fourteen cents a copy, and perhaps will sell it to the trade at twenty cents. It now becomes optional with the author and first publisher to maintain the old price and sell perhaps one thousand of the second ten thousand, or to reduce, the one of his royalty and the other his profit, sell the book to the trade almost as low as the rival, and control nearly half the subsequent market. In either case, both author and publisher are sure to get still further pay for services that have already been more than reasonably rewarded, and the public meanwhile benefits by the reduction in price. Why has no competing edition of The Rag-Picker of Paris been published during the six months that it has been on the market? Simply because, though a more than ordinarily successful novel, it did not develop a sufficient demand to tempt another publisher. Yet it has paid me more than equitably. Why, on the other hand, did two competing editions of The Kreutzer Sonata appear on the market before mine had had the field two months? Simply because the money was pouring into my pockets with a rapidity that nearly took my breath away. And after my rivals took the field, it poured in faster than ever, until I was paid fifty times over for my work. I long to find another book that will tempt somebody to compete with me. Competition in the book business is not to be shunned, but to be courted. How ridiculous, then, to claim that, when there is competition, authors will not be rewarded! But why, it will be asked, do authors and publishers clamor for copyright? I’ll tell you why, Mr. Bilgram; it is because they are hogs and want the earth. I am sorry that you are so anxious to give it to them. As G. Bernard Shaw has well said, the cry for copyright is the cry of men who are not satisfied with being paid for their work once, but insist upon being paid twice, thrice, and a dozen times over.

(3) Even though authors, without copyright, could not get their reward, I think it would still avail a good deal to say that they would write notwithstanding. It does not follow that, because a hatter will not make hats for pleasure, an author will not write books for pleasure. I am a printer by trade and an editor for pleasure. Though I am an enthusiast in typography, I should never set type for enjoyment. But not only do I edit for enjoyment; I even pay heavily in money for the privilege. There is something in art and literature that compels their devotees into their service. And I am of the opinion that it would be much better for both and for the world if they could be entirely divorced from commerce.

(4) If to claim that certain things are properly appropriable, and that certain other things,—ideas, for instance,—are not properly appropriable, is to be a communist, then I am a communist; whether a rank one or not, I neither know nor care.

(5) Here the premise may be right, but the conclusion does not follow. I may think it expedient not to copy literary works without the authors’ consent, without necessarily thinking it expedient to prevent others from doing so.

(6) Here the conclusion follows, but the premise is wrong. Public abandonment to the author of the exclusive right to publish his productions is not necessary to the people’s happiness or to literature.

(7) Yes.