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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

2263. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 23 May 1813 ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

Turner will put you in full possession of the law of the Trade, & can tell you all the facts in Townsends case, [1]  when the bookseller would have tried it, & in the case of Kirk Whites Remains [2]  which I very much hope they will now be ashamed to bring to trial. [3] 

My opinion is that literary property ought to be inheritable like every other property, & that a law which should allow you the use of the trees upon your estate for eight & twenty years, & after that term make them over to the Carpenters Company, would not be more unjust than that which takes from me & my heirs the property of my literary labours & gives it to the Company of Booksellers. – I am afraid you do not agree xx with me in this, – & certain that even if you do nothing more can be done towards a restitution of the Authors rights than simply to make their complaint when you speak upon the subject.

It is doing something to get the 28 years absolute. [4]  If the authors right of sale were limited to 14 years, would it not be practicable to prevent the mode of destroying his interest which you foresee, by enacting that after the expiration of the term from which the copyright was sold, he should be entitled to a certain portion of the profits of the edition upon sale, – a moiety, which would just put him upon the footing that booksellers are readiest to offer.

An Author advanced in years can have no copyright to sell except of the works of his old age – the lease of all his others will be pretty far run out. I believe that very little more would be given for by the bookseller for the double, than for the single term. – & that to the author the latter part of the term In reality the latter part of the term is xxxx either worth nothing, – or more than the first. The gourd has produced its fruit & is withered & gone for ever, – The xxx long before the olive begins to be productive. To the great body of authors it is the same thing whether their right of property xx xxxxx expires at the end of fourteen years or xxxx last till the day of judgement; – for even of the books which obtain reputation, not one in ten passes thro a second edition. But to those who acquire really acquire a permanent rank in the literature of their country the injury becomes heavier year after the is heavy indeed.

I should rather the right of sale were limited, – it would give the author some share of those prizes in the lottery which now fall, almost wholly, to the bookseller. – The second term would have enriched Cowper. [5]  And if you can give us a lease for life I may possibly be benefitted by it.

My labours in the Register end with this volume. [6]  John Ballantynes shuffling conduct has been the occasion of my withdrawing from it: B I hope however that he will not succeed in cheating me, as his brother has the character of an honourable man – a character {reputation} directly the reverse of his own. But for this occasion I should probably have continued the employment, tho the confinement which it imposed was inconvenient. Perhaps I may not at first dispose of my time to be as with equal profit. My first thought is, if x it can be arranged with the publishers of the Register, to write the history of the War in the Peninsula, [7]  xxxx xxxx xxx using the chapters in the Register – as I did the review of Nelson: [8]  – that is, retaining what would be injured by alteration. Had I been Historiographer [9]  the booksellers would have jumped at such a proposal, & I should have found it the most lucrative engagement of my life. Whether they will now let me rescue it from Stanier Clarke is perhaps doubtful. I have such materials by me, & so many channels of information open, that I shall be sorry for the sake of the history itself & of my own reputation (setting xxx aside all consideration of the budget) – if this scheme should not be carried into effect.

I shall probably, after all, make my journey to London in four or five weeks hence, – an unlucky time, when half the people whom I should like to see will have left it. But if I miss you then, I may catch you on my return, as Ludlow will most likely be one of my halting places, – & Hodnett if Heber should be there. A journey will be serviceable to me. Of late I have had some anxiety about the childrens health, – & some indispositions of my own.

God bless you

Yrs affectionately

RS.

Keswick. May 23. 1813.


Notes

* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr M.P./ Duke Street/ Westminster
Postmark: FREE/ 26 MY 26/ 1813
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 323–325 [in part]. BACK

[1] Joseph Townsend (1739–1816; DNB), geologist, author of A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787; with Particular Attention to the Agriculture, Manufactures, Commerce, Population, Taxes, and Revenue of that Country (1791). He had entered into an agreement whereby his publishers took the risk of publication and shared any profits equally with him. (The same terms Southey struck with Longman.) Townsend was shocked to discover that his publishers interpreted this as giving them half the copyright of the book in perpetuity. He considered legal action, but was persuaded against it on the grounds that he had no case; see Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 15 April 1812, Letter 2078. BACK

[2] The Remains of Henry Kirke White (1807). BACK

[3] See Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [c. 13 April 1813] (Letter 2246), 24 April 1813 (Letter 2251), and [c. 18 May 1813] (Letter 2258). BACK

[4] A parliamentary committee to enquire into existing copyright law was established in March 1813. Its findings led to legislation in 1814. This extended copyright to an unconditional 28 years or the life of the author if longer (rather than 14 years, plus as much of another 14 years that the author might live). This was applied to new publications and those already published by living authors. Posthumous works were also given a copyright period of 28 years. BACK

[5] The poet William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB). BACK

[6] Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1811 (1813) was the last issue to which Southey contributed. BACK

[7] The History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832), published by Murray. BACK

[8] The Life of Nelson (1813) was an expansion of Southey’s article in Quarterly Review, 3 (February 1810), 218–262. BACK

[9] In 1812 Southey had failed in his campaign to be Historiographer Royal. The appointment had gone to James Stanier Clarke (1765?-1834; DNB). BACK

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August 2013