Writer’s Rights… 19th Century Style

It’s hard to believe, but at the start of the 20th Century, it was commonly held that publishing your stories in a periodical put them into the public domain… and you lost your rights to them entirely.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to believe at all. At the opening of the 21st Century, similar controversies swirled around digital rights, and the dawn of the “magazine age” 100 years prior was really not so different. When the “weeklies” and “monthlies” began to circulate, they were entirely new beasts, and there was no precedent for determining who held the rights of the material published, and how. And when novelists began publishing their works serially (sometimes after the book had been published, sometimes before, as with Tarkington’s debut novel The Gentleman from Indiana), the waters just got murky. The kind of murky that entrepreneurs have always taken advantage of. (Napster, anyone?)

Booth Tarkington found himself at the center of resolving this issue in the fashion handed down to us today. As reported by the Long Beach Post’s historian Claudine Burnett, Tarkington contemporary Jack London found his novel The Sea Wolf pirated by film producing company Balboa the summer of 1913.

The Balboa Company argued, in a second case brought to court, that London’s stories had appeared in magazines thus making the stories public property. They could not be stopped producing the movies since there was no violation of the copyright law on their part.

In December, the Balboa Company released the three reel version of London’s The Sea Wolf which they renamed The Cruise of the Hell Ship. Later that same month, the seven reel “authorized” version was released.

Jack London was forced to institute a prolonged lawsuit against the Balboa Company, the “pirate producers,” in order to prove that an author retained the film rights to his magazine stories. In the course of this legal battle, he helped found the Authors’ League of America with Rex Beach, Booth Tarkington, Ellen Glasgow, and many other leading writers, all of whom combined to protect their copyrights. Their united efforts put enough pressure on Congress to change the copyright laws in favor of the authors, so that piracy by film and theater producers became more difficult.

The League later divided into what are now the Dramatists Guild and the Authors Guild. The League’s Bulletin was published regularly, and volumes 5 and 6 are available online. In 1917, Tarkington was a member of the “Council” and an honorary Vice-President.

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