Thanksgiving celebrations at my house usually conclude by watching one of the more than three dozen film adaptations of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (we’re not football fans). I find the variations in scripts and character portrayals to be fascinating. My personal favorite is the 1984 version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge.
This year, what struck me when viewing “A Christmas Carol” was the FBI anti-piracy warning at the beginning of the film. The FBI warning has been attached to every DVD I’ve ever viewed, but this year, in this instance, I found the warning ironic. You see, Charles Dickens’ legal battle to gain copyright protection for “A Christmas Carol” brought literary piracy to the attention of courts of law on two continents. In early Victorian England, literary piracy was so common (pirated copies often contained altered book titles, character names and minor plot points) that lawyers generally considered copyrights to be unenforceable.
“A Christmas Carol” was first published on Dec. 19, 1843. The work had been created in just six weeks. In his subsequent reading tours, Dickens said that as he wrote he would weep and laugh out loud, and often took long walks through London—sometimes 15 to 20 miles—“when all sober folks had gone to bed.” When the book was finally complete, he “broke out like a madman.”
Dickens’ concept for “A Christmas Carol” was born years earlier in his “Pickwick Papers,” which was offered to the reading public in installments for the price of one shilling per. When all chapters had been written, they were bound together and offered as a book. In Chapter 29 of “Papers,” Dickens recounts the tale of Gabriel Grub, a church sexton known for his ill temper. One Christmas eve, while digging a grave, Grub is confronted by the Goblin King and his minions, and is taken to task for his surly ways. Grub is spirited away to view three scenes which leave him fearful and shaken, and when he awakens on Christmas morning he is a changed man. In “A Christmas Carol,” the Grub character becomes Scrooge, and the Goblin King is transformed into the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. By all accounts, the Victorian Christmas customs recounted in “A Christmas Carol” were adapted from stories told by Dickens’ American friend, writer Washington Irving.
In need of funds, Dickens chose to self-publish rather than undergo the drawn-out process of contracting with a publishing house. The first edition of the book was a handsome gift volume with color illustrations and gilt edges. These “upgrades” cut into Dickens’ profits considerably, and pages of subsequent editions were of the plain black-and-white variety.
“A Christmas Carol” was an instant success; selling out the first printing of 6,000 copies on the first day. By the end of the first year the number of copies sold had risen to 12,000. Such success made the book an easy target for pirates: within two months of publication, the story was pirated into Volume 1 of “Parley’s Illuminated Library” as a story titled “A Christmas Ghost Story, reoriginated from the original by Charles Dickens, Esquire, and analytically condensed expressly for this work,” by London writer Henry Hewitt. It is believed that more than 50,000 editions of the book containing the pirated story were published.
For Dickens, the piracy of “A Christmas Carol” was the final insult. His work had been pirated before by Parley’s: they had also “reoriginated” stories titled “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “Barnaby Ridge.” For years, Dickens’ literary works had been pirated by American publishers because there were no international copyright treaties at the time. American publishers pirating the works of foreign authors was a long-standing Yankee tradition: As a new printer in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin earned a regular income publishing the works of English authors, with no compensation to the authors. Dickens hired an attorney and took his case to court.
Attorney Edward Tyrrell Jaques, in his 1914 book “Charles Dickens in Chancery” recounts the trial surrounding the piracy of “A Christmas Carol.” The defendants were London publishers Richard Lee and John Haddock, along with several London printers and distributors. The plaintiffs complaint stated that the pirated book “contains a colourable imitation of about one-half of the Christmas Carol, and is a mere piracy of same; the subject, characters, personages, and incidents being taken from and being the same as those of the Christmas Carol, except that the name ‘Fezziwig’ has been altered to ‘Fuzziwig’.”
The defense offered that “So far from the ‘Christmas Ghost Story’ being a colourable imitation of the plaintiff’s book, numerous incongruities in the Carol, involving the unhinging of the whole plot, have been tastefully remedied by Mr. Hewitt’s extended critical experience of dramatic effect, and his ready perception of harmonies … and (he) also verily believes Dickens to be more indebted to Washington Irving for the materials of his ‘Christmas Carol’ than the defendant is to Dickens as regards the ‘Christmas Ghost Story’.”
Dickens won his case, but it was a hollow victory. The defendants avoided making any payments to Dickens by declaring bankruptcy. Dickens paid the court costs of £700, roughly equal to $91,000 in today’s US dollars. The lessons Dickens learned in Chancery Court appeared in his work “Bleak House” (1853). Of his court experience, Dickens remarked: “it is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.”
Even though “A Christmas Carol” was pirated all over the Western world and performed on stage in London and New York, Dickens never sold enough copies to profit after paying his legal fees. It wasn’t until 10 years later—when Dickens began giving personal public performances of his work—that he began to make a comfortable income from “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens was a lifelong advocate for international copyright treaties. According to a Jan. 1915 report in the Boston Evening Transcript, Dickens’ American lecture tours were as much to promote a treaty as to promote his work.
In spite of a reported run of 50,000 pirated copies, these editions are rare. Rather than pay the expense of Chancery Court, many of the publishers that Dickens had sued agreed to destroy all of the books in their warehouses. Plus, the original bindings were of poor quality, and few have survived 170 years. In 1938, an S. J. Rust owned a copy, and he reproduced the first page as proof of his claim. Rust’s copy was a rare link to the pirated edition until Iona and Peter Opie added a copy of #1 Parley’s Illuminated Library to their collection of children’s books. Currently, one copy is offered for sale for about $500 by The Victoria Bookshop on line.
The effect of Dickens’ tale on modern Christmas traditions is profound. The phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized by the book, and the phrases “Scrooge” and “bah, humbug!” have become synonymous to miserly ways. Though Dickens was largely unsuccessful in his efforts to get paid for his pirated works, modern writers, film-makers and musicians owe Mr. Dickens a debt of gratitude for his campaign to establish copyright protections for artists.
Previously published on WorthPoint.com
Originally posted 2014-03-01 11:31:00.