It’s Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday! In celebration why not reread this post on Dickens, copyright and “A Christmas Carol” by Mary Jane Mallonee, retired Widener Law librarian and Dickens buff.
Charles Dickens was already a well-established English author in the fall of 1843 when he decided to write a story to be ready for sale by the Christmas holiday. He was determined to write a blockbuster that would (1) remind people of the jovial activities that used to occur during the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas but had fallen victim to the Industrial Revolution, (2) revive an old country custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, (3) raise social awareness of the plight of the poor, and (4) make a big profit so he could pay off his accumulating bills. All of the above did happen after Dickens published A Christmas Carol a few days before Christmas 1843, but his tidy profit was soon consumed by a “Dickensian” encounter with England’s Chancery Court.
On January 6, 1844, an unauthorized story appeared in book shops with the title A Christmas Ghost Story reoriginated from the original by Charles Dickens Esquire and analytically condensed for this work. Two days later Dickens’s solicitor filed for an injunction to stop publication of this obviously plagiarized edition. The defendants argued that Dickens’s works had been “reoriginated” before and Dickens had not filed suit to stop the practice. However, Vice-Chancellor Bruce found that this piracy had gone ”beyond all previous instances” and ruled in Dickens’s favor. Unfortunately, Dickens became embroiled in five more suits against plagiarists of his popular “little Carol” in the next four months. Because the pirates all declared bankruptcy, there were no assets with which the rogue publishers were required to pay even the court costs Dickens incurred while trying to protect his intellectual property. Although thousands of copies of his classic tale were sold by his own publisher, his profit was greatly reduced by his encounter with Chancery Court.
In 1846, when pirates were again plagiarizing one of his original works, Dickens refused to bring them to trial, writing to a friend that, “I shall not easily forget the expense, and anxiety, and horrible injustice of the Carol case, wherein, in asserting the plainest right on earth, I was really treated as if I were the robber instead of the robbed.”
Written by Mary Jane Mallonee
For more information see: E. T. Jaques. Charles Dickens in Chancery: Being an Account of His Proceedings in Respect of the “Christmas Carol” With Some Gossip in Relation to the Old Law Courts at Westminster. Longmans, 1914.