Mark Twain: Copyright Maximalist Who Also Believed That Nearly All Human Utterances Were Plagiarism?
from the contradiction-or-satire? dept
In copyright circles, Mark Twain’s speech to Congress in 1906 is well known as being the point at which he made clear his desire that copyright should be vastly expanded to make sure his kids kept earning money:
My copyrights produce to me annually a good deal more money than I have any use for. But those children of mine have use for that. I can take care of myself as long as I live. I know half a dozen trades, and I can invent a half a dozen more. I can get along. But I like the fifty years’ extension, because that benefits my two daughter, who are not as competent to earn a living as I am, because I have carefully raised them as young ladies, who don’t know anything and can’t do anything. So I hope Congress will extend to them that charity which they have failed to get from me.
He later argues for infinite copyright:
The English idea of copyright, as I found, was different, when I was before the committee of the House of Lords, composed of seven members I should say. The spokesman was a very able man, Lord Thring, a man of great reputation, but he didn’t know anything about copyright and publishing. Naturally be didn’t, because he hadn’t been brought up to this trade. It is only people who have had intimate personal experience with the triumphs and griefs of an occupation who know how to treat it and get what is justly due.
Now that gentleman had no purpose or desire in the world to rob anybody or anything, but this was the proposition–fifty years extension–and he asked me what I thought the limit of copyright ought to be.
“Well,” I said, “perpetuity.” I thought it ought to last forever.
Some have argued, somewhat convincingly, that Twain as actually doing a somewhat brilliant satire, which not everyone understood. That would be awesome, if true, and there are some hints that it may very well be. However, it does appear that Twain himself was somewhat more conflicted on this particular issue. Siva Vaidhyanathan has an entire chapter (pdf) of his excellent book, Copyrights and Copyrwrongs, devoted to Twain’s fluctuating views on copyright. However, he does suggest that later on in life — from 1898 onward basically — Twain appeared to be a strong maximalist.
So it’s interesting to then discover, via Joe Betsill, that during that same period, Twain argued that “the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism” and that this wasn’t a bad thing. The specifics are that Twain was writing a letter to Helen Keller, who a decade earlier (at 12-years of age) had just gone through a controversy in which she was accused of plagiarizing heavily from another book for her own work, The Frost King. Twain wrote to Keller, with whom he was friendly, after learning about the plagiarism accusations:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men—but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
Then why don’t we unwittingly reproduce the phrasing of a story, as well as the story itself? It can hardly happen—to the extent of fifty words except in the case of a child; its memory-tablet is not lumbered with impressions, and the actual language can have graving-room there, and preserve the language a year or two, but a grown person’s memory-tablet is a palimpsest, with hardly a bare space upon which to engrave a phrase. It must be a very rare thing that a whole page gets so sharply printed on a man’s mind, by a single reading, that it will stay long enough to turn up some time or other to be mistaken by him for his own. No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court;” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had.”
To think of those solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant rubbish about plagiarism! I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night. Why, their whole lives, their whole histories, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they didn’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam—
That was sent in 1903. Yet just three years later, he was arguing to Congress that ideas were property and should remain in the possession of those that created them forever:
So if I could have convinced that gentleman that a book which does consist solely of ideas, from the base to the summit, then that would have been the best argument in the world that it is property, like any other property, and should not be put under the ban of any restriction, but that it should be the property of that man and his heirs forever and ever, just as a butcher shop would be, or–I don’t care–anything, I don’t care what it is. It all has the same basis. The law should recognize the right of perpetuity in this and every other kind of property.
Now, plagiarism and copyright are not exact equivalents — though there can (and often is) significant overlap. But it’s difficult to see how the same person can reasonably argue both points. Perhaps that lends some credence to the claims that the Congressional hearing was, in fact, satire. Either way, I think I like the 1903 Mark Twain waxing poetically on how all ideas are plagiarism much more than the 1906 Mark Twain whining about how his children are too useless to do anything and need to keep making money from his books long after he’s dead.