This week, in something of a coup, the British literary journal Granta published an excerpt from the first volume of Mark Twain’s forthcoming autobiography, to be published unabridged for the first time this November by the University of California Press, a full 100 years after Twain’s death. The wonderful passage Granta chose to excerpt, entitled “The Farm,” recounts Twain’s childhood memories on his uncle’s estate in Florida, Missouri—including Twain’s first encounters with slavery.
Seeing the Granta piece, however, reminded me of another part of Twain’s legacy—his rocky relationship with publishers, and copyright. In fact, during his life, Twain envisioned his autobiography as a weapon to defeat the then 42-year copyright term. His plan: to publish new editions of his public domain works with sections of the autobiography interspersed, thus qualifying the work for new copyrights. “Of course this will not totally prevent piracy,” a December, 1906, New York Times article reported, “but Mark Twain believes this will vitiate the sales of editions that do not contain the autobiography and make them worthless.” In the article, Twain is said to view copyright as “pure robbery,” and publishers as “pirates.” And that, the Times says, is a conservative rendering of Twain’s views, a more faithful, “radical” rendering, the article notes, would lead to the Times being “excluded from the mails.”
Twain’s scheme, to publish new editions of, say, Tom Sawyer together with passages of his autobiography separated only by a rule on the page, “would have been ridiculous in actual practice,” Ken Fisher blogged for Ars Technica in 2007, although, it sounds perfectly suited for the digital age. And, the great American author was on to an important point, Fisher noted, later to be widely espoused by Wired’s Chris Anderson: you can and must compete with “free,” in this case, “free” being royalty-free editions of his books. “Twain understood how the value of copyrighted works could change over time, and he imagined a scenario in which he would creatively try to enliven old works to renew their commercial aspects.”
Notably, Twain was not in favor of perpetual copyright. Although he lobbied for copyright term extensions, he told lawmakers that copyright should be extended to protect revenues for his children. As for the grandchildren, “they can fend for themselves,” he famously said.