Mark Twain and Copyright Robbery

The history of copyright is interesting in how many times it changed. Since the beginning the duration of the extension became longer, and it is currently the author’s life plus 70 years. Which should be enough for most authors. It was accomplished through the Copyright Act of 1976. But 70 years before that a different revision to copyright has been pushed by legislators, extending the copyright duration to author’s life plus 50 years. Mark Twain was an important supporter of the bill. Here are some links: : New York Times article about his visit to NYC, published 12-12-1906. It details on his plan to publish his autobiography as small commentaries to his previous works into a new dition. : Mark Twain’s speech before the committee on 06-12-1906. It is quite short and simple, so I recommend reaing it.

In the speech Mark Twain talks about how unfair it is to have the copyright expire in 42 years. His favorite expression is that it is a robbery of the authors’ right by the publishers, who had nothing to do with the creation of the works but profit from them, which makes sense since the publishers are taking away the rightful profit that should go for wives and sons of the authors. What’s most interesting is his notion of what constitutes a property. This is part of Mark Twain’s speech:

“When I appeared before that committee of the House of Lords the chairman asked me what limit I would propose. I said, “Perpetuity.” I could see some resentment in his manner, and he said the idea was illogical, for the reason that it has long ago been decided that there can be no such thing as property in ideas. I said there was property in ideas before Queen Anne’s time; they had perpetual copyright. He said, “What is a book? A book is just built from base to roof on ideas, and there can be no property in it.” I said I wished he could mention any kind of property on this planet that had a pecuniary value which was not derived from an idea or ideas. He said real estate.”

I put a supposititious case, a dozen Englishmen who travel through South Africa and camp out, and eleven of them see nothing at all; they are mentally blind. But there is one in the party who knows what this harbor means and what the lay of the land means. To him it means that some day a railway will go through here, and there on that harbor a great city will spring up.”

That is his idea. And he has another idea, which is to go and trade his last bottle of Scotch whiskey and his last horse-blanket to the principal chief of that region and buy a piece of land the size of Pennsylvania. That was the value of an idea that the day would come when the Cape to Cairo Railway would be built.”

Every improvement that is put upon the real estate is the result of an idea in somebody’s head. The skyscraper is another idea; the railroad is another; the telephone and all those things are merely symbols which represent ideas. An andiron, a wash-tub, is the result of an idea that did not exist before.”

So if, as that gentleman said, a book does consist solely of ideas, that is the best argument in the world that it is property, and should not be under any limitation at all. We don’t ask for that.”

So let us take his argument for true and say that books are also a kind of property that should be treated in the same way as other properties. But even a five year old knows the difference between a house and a book – they are completely different kinds of property. Mark Twain did not get to that point, as he was simply illustrating that intellectual properties are also properties. But what is the criteria for distinguishing intellectual property from nonintellectual property, if they are essentially both derived from the ideas, and are realization of those ideas? I’d say the extent of realization is quite different in these two cases.

For example consider the magnificent architectures of Dubai. Assuming that two people have same ideas about how to develop the city into the jewel of Arab, one person just publishes a book about that idea, detailing her plans. Another person, however, decides to execute the idea and build the buildings. In terms of cost and commitment, the latter is far more devoted to the realization of the idea. This must be why we traditionally held a special value over material property, when intellectual property was regarded less highly.

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    i like your example about dubai, and how the latter would seem more devoted to the realization of the idea because she actually built the buildings and designed the city. it’s interesting how those values have been prevalent in history, like in ancient Greece or Rome or China when it was very valuable for a famous philosopher to have students that would right down all their philosophies and thoughts because they recognized the value of their ideas in tangible forms.

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