Victorian Literature Copyright
Catherine Seville
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0191


The nineteenth century saw significant change in the context and focus of copyright law. During the eighteenth century, copyright laws had national effect, and were tailored to national interests. But during the nineteenth century, different political, industrial, and economic conditions led to demands for a wider outlook. British copyright law exemplifies the challenge of these changes. In 1837 the lawyer and author Thomas Talfourd introduced a copyright bill which expressed a bold vision of copyright reform including significant domestic consolidation and active international copyright arrangements. It took five years before any bill was passed, and its provisions were significantly modified in the process. The resulting 1842 Copyright Act did not achieve all the reforms that its visionary champion had hoped for, and it proved to have a number of defects which grew more obvious as the century wore on. Nevertheless it formed the basis of modern copyright law, and in relation to domestic law its groundwork is visible well into the twentieth century. International copyright took rather longer to develop, but it was of increasing importance. British writers wanted copyright protection not just in Britain itself, but in all places where there was a market for their books. The position in continental Europe, in the British colonies, and in America was therefore of great significance. There were many changes affecting copyright law during this period, which were often ardently contested. There was a great deal of significant legal activity, both in the form of legislation and also in case law. Given the extent of the market for British copyright works, this wider geographical legal context was of direct relevance to all Victorian writers and publishers—and to readers. One difficulty when reforming copyright law is the breadth and significance of the activities and themes that it touches. These include the nature of copyright (and of intellectual property more widely), literary and artistic culture in the broadest sense, popular education, the public interest, the publishing trade, international trade and competition, constitutional freedom and independence, and national character. It is challenging to take account of such issues, even in a domestic context. When other national positions are brought to bear on the outcome, the task of negotiating a copyright law that reconciles all interests can seem almost impossible. In addition, these matters will be subject to political and economic pressures, and touched by the general trends and changes which affect all societies. The debate regarding copyright’s proper aims and mechanisms was a fierce one in the Victorian era—as it had been since the first British copyright statute, the Statute of Anne 1710. It is a debate which is still very much continuing today.

General Sources

Those approaching copyright from the direction of Victorian literature will not necessarily need or want the mass of technical legal material and detailed examples which underlie the history. Feather 1994 is an approachable, reasonably concise survey of the relevant basic history. Nowell-Smith 1968 has a slightly dated feel but is still a very good short account of the international copyright issues which were so troublesome to writers and publishers during the Victorian era. Both offer pointers to the more technical aspects for those that are looking for them, but it should be remembered that a very considerable amount of legal scholarship on the history of copyright has been published since. That material is referenced in the relevant sections elsewhere. Alexander 2010 addresses “the public interest,” one of the major themes in any discussion of the justifications of copyright. It is also a helpful entrance point into the thematic material more generally. Primary Sources on Copyright is a valuable digital archive of primary sources on copyright, which has been selectively compiled by national editors.

  • Alexander, Isabella. Copyright and the Public Interest in the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Hart, 2010.

    Explores the different ideas of “public interest” relevant to copyright law and its shaping. Central focus on the nineteenth century, but with proper acknowledgment of relevant events which preceded and followed. Thoughtful and readable, with good detail if required.

  • Feather, John. Publishing, Piracy and Politics: An Historical Study of Copyright in Britain. London: Mansell, 1994.

    A good introductory overview of the development of copyright law in Britain, from its early origins to the twentieth century. Seen from the perspective of the history of publishing, with useful focus on commercial issues and examples. Look for technical legal material elsewhere.

  • Nowell-Smith, Simon. International Copyright Law and the Publisher in the Reign of Queen Victoria. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.

    Remains an excellent brief introduction to the effect of various copyright laws on publishing and printing practices during this period, with illustrative bibliographical examples.

  • Primary Sources on Copyright (1450–1900). Edited by L. Bently and M. Kretschmer.

    An excellent digital resource. Includes many sources relevant to this period, including both legislation and case law, and also commentary and related documents. Some of its entries are directly referenced in other sections of this article.

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