Captured by Pirates!; or, The Case of the Elusive Copyright

Captured by Pirates!; or, The Case of the Elusive Copyright

[Doyle, Arthur Conan (1859-1930)]. Correspondence relating to the American copyright for The Firm of Girdlestone, 1896.

     Four items from the files of Henry D. Coolidge illustrative of the confusion caused by pirated editions of Doyle’s works.

     Published by Chatto & Windus in 1890, Doyle’s novel The Firm of Girdlestone was swiftly reprinted in numerous unauthorized editions in the United States. In 1890 alone, the novel was issued under three American imprints: Frank F. Lovell & Co., John W. Lovell, and the United States Book Company. Over the next decade, the book was reissued by a bewildering string of publishers, including Lovell, Coryell & Co., A. L. Burt, E. A. Weeks & Co., William L. Allison Co., H. M. Caldwell Co., R. F. Fenno, George Munro, American Publisher’s Corp., Hurst & Co., Siegel-Cooper Co., Street & Smith, F. M. Lupton, Thomas Y. Crowell, American News Co., George M. Hill, and Mershon Co. The difficulty was compounded by numerous factors: the fact that multiple imprints were owned by the same corporation, the that imprints were continuously being discontinued and reorganized, and the fact that firms commonly rented or sold plates to each other. The three publishers who issued the novel in 1890 were in fact all connected to one man, John W. Lovell, whom John Tebbel called “a born blue-sky promoter and snakeoil salesman.”

This bloody pirate stole my sloop

And holds her in his wicked ward.

Lord send that walking on my poop

I see him kick at my main yard.

                   -- Arthur Conan Doyle on John W. Lovell

     Lovell’s brother Frank and Edward had their own imprints (the latter under the name National Book Company), and there were numerous other satellites including the Wayside Publishing Co. and the Seaside Publishing Company. The International Copyright Act of 1891 and the Panic of 1893 severed the arms of Lovell’s corporate octopus, and saw him dismissed as director. But his various enterprises continued. His United States Book Company was reconstituted as the American Book Company; the International Book Company continued under the leadership of one of Lovell’s managers, and he inaugurated another in partnership with another, Vincent M. Coryell.

“John Lovell, the publisher, was not only a capitalist, but a ‘plunger,’ a business magnate, a ‘Svengali’ in commerce, who was accused from time to time of piracy and sharp practice and who organized one of the largest and most extraordinary book trusts in the history of publishing.”  

                       -- Madeleine B. Stern

     That the bewildering web of American book publishing cheated authors of their potential earnings is widely acknowledged. Less well known is the difficulty this practice posed for others. The confusing networks of ownership among firms and uncertainty with regard to copyright made it very difficult for other upstanding citizens to pursue legitimate interests.

     Henry Dingley Coolidge (1858-1922) is a case in point. The scion of a Brahminical family, Coolidge served throughout his career as Clerk of the Massachusetts Senate. He moonlighted as a playwright and librettist for comic operas. His published works include Effusion (1891), Dead Reckoning: A Farce (1895), Cascabel; or, The Broken Tryst (1899), Priscilla; or, The Pilgrim’s Proxy (1909). In 1896, he read the Munro edition of The Firm of Girdlestone and decided that it would be fine fodder for the stage. But whom to apply for permission? There his troubles began.

     As Donald Redmond explains, the American copyright on this particular novel was particularly bewildering:

In March an American edition [of The Firm of Girdlestone] was announced, and a copyright entry appeared, according to Green and Gibson (p. 32), in the name of John W. Lovell, with an 1889 date.

Now this is very strange. For John W. Lovell was a pirate among pirates, and was (with colleagues in the cheap-reprint business) among those who successfully lobbied against the copyright bill that had been before the Congress in early 1890. There could be no American copyright in any Doyle work at that date. Lovell knew this full well.

     This small archive collects Coolidge’s attempts to sort out the copyright for The Firm of Girdlestone. Not incidentally, it answers Redmond’s concerns as well, and offers a corrective to the information reported in Green and Gibson. The collection comprises:

o [Coolidge, Henry D.] to A. R. Spofford, Library of Congress, October 19, 1896. Carbon copy of an inquiry attempting to sort out the copyright history of The Firm of Girdlestone, which the writer seeks to dramatize. 

o A. R. Spofford, Library of Congress, to Henry D. Coolridge, nd [ca. Oct 20, 1896]. ANS discussing various editions of The Firm of Girdlestone, including those published by Lovell and Munro.

o Library of Congress copyright notice written and signed by A. R. Spofford, Oct 20, 1896, certifying the American copyright of The Firm of Girdlestone.

o Vincent M. Coryell, American Publishing Company, to Henry D. Coolidge, Massachusetts Senate, Oct 22, 1896.  TLS offering a guarded response to Coolidge’s inquiry.

     Despite the confusion, Coolidge managed finally to secure permissions. His five-act adaptation of The Firm of Girdlestone, written with Walter H. Dugan and Arthur L. Griffin, premiered at the Castle Square Theater in Boston on February 26, 1900. A silent film adaptation of the novel was released in 1915.

    These papers provide valuable clues to sorting out the complicated publication history of this novel – Spofford’s letters offer more information than is available in Green & Gibson. They also offer fascinating insight into the broader ramifications of literary piracy at the turn of the century.

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    Captured by Pirates!; or, The Case of the Elusive Copyright