M. T. on ©

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.

—Mark Twain

I reply:

Mr. S. L. Clemens believed that copyright ought to be perpetual, and that it required uncommon stupidity to think otherwise. He liked to say, in tones of surprise and personal affront, that every other kind of property was eternal, but copyright alone was confiscated by the government at an arbitrary date.

Which ignored the fact that patents are also ‘confiscated’ after shorter terms than copyrights.

And the fact that real estate is liable to confiscation after a term as short as one year, if you fail to pay your property taxes; and likewise with mines. (The man had worked, sort of, at silver mining in Nevada for part of a while; he had seen firsthand how a mining claim could lapse for any number of legal reasons, including nonpayment of taxes or fees.)

And that shares in companies, even in the days before personal income tax, only continued to be valuable as long as the companies paid their taxes.

For the most part, it was only petty personal belongings that were exempt from tax, and therefore, not liable to be confiscated by the state. But Mr. Clemens could own the copyrights in his work for as long as the law allowed – a form of property that had never existed in the world before the copyright law was invented.

He never had to pay a dollar in taxes to keep that property; never had to do a blessed thing to maintain it in the eyes of the law, except register it according to the legal requirements of the time – a trivial tax in his time and effort for the right to the exclusive enjoyment of a lucrative property for (at that time) forty-two years.

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit that Mr. Clemens ought to have got down on his knees and thanked God daily for the law that granted him a monopoly in making copies of his own work, and did not grant any such monopoly to those who provided the necessaries of life. He could sit on a chair without paying a royalty to the man that invented the chair; he could scratch away with his pen, without paying the inventors of pens, ink, and paper; and if he did not like the result, he could crumple it up and chuck it in the fire, without paying one solitary cent to the primaeval caveman who domesticated fire. But his works, for a time, and by gift of the law, were sacrosanct; he could charge whatever he wished for them, or withhold them from the market entirely. If the caveman had had his atttitude, he would have knocked on Clemens’s door with his club, and said briskly: ‘Put out that fire. You haven’t paid me my royalties, and anyway, I do not choose to sell my patented product to the likes of you. Go, you cur, and freeze in the dark, and let your copyrights keep you warm.’

(Hat tip to The Passive Voice. My comment reprinted therefrom.)


  1. Carbonel says

    Bravo. What a lovely bit of castigation.

Speak Your Mind