What the Dickens? Rock musicians selling overpriced t-shirts weren’t the first content creators to monetise piracy?


Believe it or not, but prior to 1891, American law provided copyright protection ONLY if you were a US resident. UK authors got zero royalties.

It was an intellectual-property war every bit as fierce as today’s DVD black market in China. American publishers would send their agents to roam the wharves in New York, Philadelphia and Boston to intercept popular manuscripts coming in by ship. Across the Atlantic, English customs officials would search passenger ships coming from the States and confiscate pirated British books as contraband.

Dickens v America, by Matthew Pearl in the Economist

Probably the biggest victim of this legal form of piracy was Charles Dickens. He had railed against US copyright law (and other aspects of American life) after his 1841 speaking tour, to the point where he turned the formerly-adoring Americans against him.


But pressed for money in later life, he returned to the USA for another speaking tour:

The author gave 76 public readings over six months, earning him $3000 for each performance and $228,000 total (in today’s dollars, approximately $50,000 per night and $3,800,000 total).  In New York City, 5000 people stood in a mile-long line for tickets, while 40,000 attended his performances there.

New York Times, On this Day from 2001


In fact, when Dickens died shortly after, it was estimated that 20% of his estate came from the proceeds of the tour…despite the fact that he never earned a penny of US royalties from the traditional source of income for authors of the time.

What lessons can be learned for those who are dealing with 21st century pirates? Or who are dealing with fans who think that ‘free’ is the right price for content?



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