09 September 2011

Of American Pirates and Canadian Counterfeiters

I received an email recently from a publisher who took exception to a post on pirated John Glassco titles at my other blog. "Hey there," he begins, "actually, we're not quite without permission on Glassco."

Not quite.

He then goes on to acknowledge that he "may be without permission" for one of the works in question. "Amazon won't carry it, and the thing was going for $500 used before I came along," he writes in defence.

You see, the man is performing a public service.

I stand by my words, which are supported by contracts and correspondence found in the Glassco fonds at Library and Archives Canada.

As I've not responded to this email, it seems unfair to identify this particular publisher.

Not responded?

Oh, I would have, but his concluding remarks rather rubbed me the wrong way:
Too bad you didn't contact me before. I have around 14k paying customers on the site, not to mention half a million visitors each month to —. Some of these readers might have been interested in your book.
He's referring here, of course, to A Gentleman of Pleasure, my new biography of Glassco. Well, I happily sacrifice any sales that I might have enjoyed in associating myself with this individual and his various ventures. One is, after all, known by the company one keeps.

No pun intended.

With the spread of POD technology and ebooks, it's hard to imagine that the problem of piracy won't grow, perhaps returning us to the turbulence and tumultuousness of earlier times. I'm reminded of poor Mark Twain, whose pocketbook took shots from Canada in a copyright war between the United States and the British Empire. In the end, of course, it was the writer who suffered the most.

Same as it ever was.

Twain wrote about his frustration with pirates counterfeiters, he called them in a 1 October 1880 letter to Congressman Rollin M. Daggett. The letter, with entertaining p.s., can be found online here at the Mark Twain Project.

Dear Daggett—
I want to go to Washington, but it ain’t any use, business-wise, for Congress won’t bother with anything but President-making. My publisher got me to send a letter of his to Blaine a month or two ago, in which our grievance was fully set forth. I didn’t believe Blaine would interest himself in the matter, & I was right. You just get that letter from Blaine, & cast your eye over it, & try to arrive at a realizing sense of what a silly & son-of-a-bitch of a law the present law against book-piracy is. I believe it was framed by an goddamd idiot, & passed by a Congress of goddamd muttonheads.
you come up here –that is the thing to do. I, also have Scotch whisky, certain lemons, & hot water, & struggle with the same every night.
Ys Ever

If you want to see how thoroughly foolish section 4964 is, just read it & substitute the words “U. S. treasury note” for the w “copy of such "counterfeit U. S. treasury note" for the words "copy of such book."
My books sell at $3.50 a copy, their Canadian counterfeit at 25 & 50 cents. If I could sieze [sic]
all the Canadian counterfeits I could no more use them to my advantage than the Government could use bogus notes to its advantage. The only desirable & useful thing, in both cases, is the utter suppression of the counterfeits. The government treats its counterfeiters as criminals, but mine as erring gentlemen. What I want is that mime mine shall be treated as criminals too.
Thirteen decades later, it's still enough to make one reach for Scotch whiskey, certain lemons and hot water.


  1. Well done!

    Due to the U.S. copyright law's Manufacturing Clause (since rescinded) all books originally printed outside the U.S. were not afforded protection in the U.S. unless a few basic steps were taken. Girodias never took them and as a result all Olympia Press books were legal for anyone to reprint in the U.S. until the early 1970s. So "piracies" is not, strictly speaking, correct. Unauthorized reprints, sure.

    I prefer the term, scum-sucking, conscienceless,free-booting buccaneers when referring to these ethically-empty entrepreneurs. It avoids the legal sophistry while highlighting the immorality.

    BTW: When U.S. publisher Sam Roth reprinted parts of Ulysses during the early 1930s w/o authorization from Joyce, the literary world went up in arms and called him out. Not that it did any good: the book was considered legally "obscene" and thus beyond copyright protection.

    As always, ain't Twain great?

  2. My thanks.

    I won't deny for a second that the labyrinth of legalities left behind by Glassco's varied hoaxes can confuse, but there are certain certainties and known knowns. For example, one need only glance at the considerable correspondence between Glassco and Girodias to see that the latter paid the former each and every time he reprinted or sold Under the Hill and The English Governess (a fact of which the publisher in question appears ignorant). I add that Girodias had nothing whatsoever to do with two of the titles published by our publishing "pirate". In fact, the Parisian publisher rejected one of them outright (much to Glassco's surprise). Correspondence, contracts, legal affidavits - they're all there in the fonds.

    Ah, 'tis a tangled web, and there be spiders about, I say (Scotch in one hand, a lemon in the other).