Piracy Dispute

Dispute with English Authors & Publishers

The Piracy Controversy

Note: This portion of the site is under development. New quotes from periodicals or letters will be added over time.

The following excerpt is taken from James D. Van Trump and Arthur P. Ziegler Jr.’s “Thomas Bird Mosher — Publisher and Pirate” in The Book Collector. Vol. II, No. 3. Autumn, 1962, pp. 307-310. Slight changes in punctuation have been made, and hypertext links with the complete text are substituted for the original brief footnotes. Link insertions not appearing in the original quote have also been added.

The protestations against Mosher’s unorthodox procedure were initiated by Andrew Lang from whom Mosher lifted Aucassin and Nicolete (afterwards pirated by at least five other presses) in 1895, followed by Ballads and Lyrics of Old France the next year, and an introduction to The Poems of Edgar Allen Poe in 1902. Lang hurled a piracy charge via The Critic in 1896 , drawing the rejoinder from the accused that he was merely making available an ‘inaccessible’ book [see also the exchange between Lionel Johnson and Mosher ]. The cry was not taken up generally until 1909 when The Publishers’ Circular became indignant. This journal, on 23 January, informed bookstores in an article entitled ” Thomas B. Mosher, The American Book Pirate — A Warning to English Booksellers ” that most Mosher books could not be legally carried in Britain. Mosher, with a husky seaman’s lack of restraint, replied on 13 March. He claimed that his opponents were angry because “what I republish is public property in this country, in yours ’tis private” and that he “decided to overrule or rather forestall any dog-in-the manger attitude by taking what I had a perfect legal right, and . . . (viewed from the standard of the good and the many especially where it does no harm to the few) a perfect moral right to use.” He suggested that his “contribution” was to “have had the wit .. to devise new formats and to discover literary work worth while using, which the original publisher never cared for or thought possible to use a second time.” The Publishers’ Circular was unchastened, however, and on 6 June a group of imprecating letters appeared under the title “The Methods of Mosher .” The outraged party took on members, and during the next five years The Glasgow Herald, The Evening Standard and St. James’s Gazette, The Evening News, The Manchester Guardian, and The Clique all put in a few remarks. A lull did occur in 1911-13, and then a final, but fiery, discussion flared in The Times in the second week of March 1914. It, of course, was echoed in The Publishers’ Circular. James H. Blackwood, as became his position as president of the Publishers’ Association, took it upon himself to notify the public in forthright terms of Mosher’s activities in a letter printed in The Times on 7 March and in the Circular a week later. He defined Mosher as

. . . an American publisher who battens at the expense of British authors and publishers by issuing piratical editions of English copyright books. He sends his list of contraband literature by post to buyers in this country, who cannot be expected to realize the true position of affairs, and who are naturally delighted to find their favourite authors issued in an attractive guise and at a low price — a price that enables Mr. Mosher — by not paying the author to make a handsome profit.

He was seconded by R. B. Marston, editor of the Circular, who, in making vivid his case, quoted three resentful authors — Lang, Meredith, and Maurice Hewlett — the latter amusingly pointing out that Mosher “paid me nothing, but, with sublime imprudence, he once sent me a copy of his plunder” [but see other quotes from Meredith (coming soon)]. Two Englishmen supported Mosher. Mr Clement Shorter, in an article in The Sphere, 31 December 1910, which was extensively quoted in The Literary Digest in the later flare-up, 9 May 1914, took the position that the outrage was not commensurate with the offence. Mosher, he pointed out, prints books not available in England (e.g. Dowson’s Pierrot of the Minute), not in copyright (e.g. The Sermon on the Mount), or out of copyright and since reprinted by other English publishers without payment (e.g. Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp). Of instances outside these categories he assumes that “the author has been too careless to obtain copyright in the United States.” Grant Richards, the publisher, joined Shorter in noting that Mosher printed “books which the carelessness or the lack of faith of English publisher and author have [sic] caused them to omit to copyright in the United States.” “Moreover,” he asks, “are there not several members of the association of which Mr. Blackwood is president who did to famous American authors whose books had not been copyrighted in England exactly what Mr. Mosher has done in Portland, Maine, to English authors — but oh so much less attractively! — and thereby laid for themselves the foundations of great prosperity?” Mosher must have felt secure in his methods, for he did not trouble to respond any more. However, a few scraps of paper (undated) in the Harvard archives bearing his writing display a certain vexation, for he notes:

Bridges was pleased

Ditto – G.W. Meredith
”  – W. Sharp
”  – Michael Field

Lang was offered honorarium but said “thy money perish with thee” — profane! [and]
Lang . . . has not been harmed in the wider outlook: he has been helped.

It is just in the “wider outlook” that we see Mosher was right. The facts of the matter come to these. Mosher cherished most of the material he pirated and wanted to make it available to America. Not able to pay royalties, he helped himself to his favourite authors, legally if not morally in the right. He sold a few copies of his books in England, illegally; however, as he said in his reply to Blackwood, the sale was but an “incident” to his business. The authors he printed — and it is this that absolves Mosher of condemnation — did profit by the faith he invested in them because they received, in many instances, an introduction to America or else were brought to the attention of more readers. And America itself thus benefited.