So the brand-new United States took the time to protect its authors by creating copyright laws right from the get-go, using laws that were based on those being used in other countries such as England. But even though the U.S. was eager to borrow heavily from England's laws, it wasn't in any hurry to share content fairly. In fact, the United States has often been a rather does-not-play-well-with-others player in the game of international copyright.
For the first 101 years of American copyright law's existence (1790-1891), the act only protected American authors. There was no thought given to foreign authors, but this wasn't a rarity as many other countries also hadn't bothered with protection for foreign authors. In the 18th century, there were very few American authors who could produce books, so the majority of books in America came from other countries. This situation didn't last for long though; by mid-nineteenth century, the list of notable American authors was growing (think: all the "dead white men" with three names you had to read in your literature survey courses), and America was now a contender in the international literary marketplace.
"Hmmm," thought the British, "those rapscallions across the ocean who thumbed their noses at us and were cocky enough to think they could start a country all on their own... the writers over there aren't half-bad."
And while the British were noticing the American authors, they were also noticing the impunity with which American publishers printed books. Sure, they were printing the books of all their Thoreaus and Emersons. But they were also printing works by foreign authors, mostly those of British authors, without securing copyrights and without really caring what the end product was like. This pissed the British off and led them, in 1837, to submit to Congress a petition demanding that foreign authors be protected in the U.S., citing the fact that the "reputation and property" of British authors were being harmed by the uncopyrighted publication of their works in the U.S. The American publication of foreign works was also hurting American authors, the British petition went on to say, because the uncopyrighted foreign works were much cheaper for American publishers to produce than copyrighted domestic works. This meant that an American browsing for a new book to read would be more inclined to pick up a cheap novel by a British author rather than shelling out more for a pricier American novel. Couldn't America see that granting copyright protection to foreign authors would benefit everyone?
It couldn't. So the following year, England took matters into its own hands and began the process of protecting foreign authors by passing the International Copyright Acts. These acts only worked in a reciprocal fashion, however, so while other countries were happily playing along with England, America was still giving it the cold shoulder. It was also keeping its copyright laws basically the same as they had been since their inception.
During these times, authors who were particularly clever were attempting to simultaneously publish their works in both America and England, though this could prove to be tricky because the authors needed to be able to travel from England to America, or vice versa, and reside there at the time that the book was published. Not a particularly easy or effective means of securing international copyright, especially when one considers that in those days travel was, to put it quite frankly, a bitch.
In 1878 a group of authors, artists, academics, and publishers formed the Association Litteraire et Artistique Internationale, an organization that drafted what would would later (1886) become the Berne Union for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. This was an international copyright treaty where participating countries would follow the golden rule: treating others (foreign authors) as they (domestic authors) would like to be treated. England signed on. Many countries in Europe signed on. Other countries signed on. The United States did not. Oh, they sent someone along to the proceedings to scope out the scene, but then Congress decided that they had to first think about how America would protect foreign works (if at all). Way to play nice with others, U.S.
The story of international copyright doesn't end there, and I'll pick up on what happened after 1891 in the next entry. But I just have to pause and briefly reflect on things up to this point. The fact that many countries came together and unanimously decided that they should protect the work of authors regardless of their country of origin gives me a warm, fuzzy-ish feeling. The fact that the United States decided to peace out of the Berne Union initially gives me a headache. Why wouldn't this young country willingly join in this mutually beneficial agreement with other countries? Was it trying to prove itself as being independent? Was it unsure of itself? Was it just an example of Congress being its usual ridiculous self? Or was the American publishing industry just to happy raking in the profits? This is something I'd like to explore further, but it certainly bears thinking about.