Thomas Paine on Copyright, 225 years ago and today

The excellent HBO biopic John Adams inspired me to catch up on my period reading. This past weekend I bought a recent biography of perhaps the most famous of the founding fathers left out of the miniseries — Thomas Paine, by Craig Nelson (2006). Thomas Paine had lived in America for barely a year when he published Common Sense, the 77-page pamphlet presenting the case for independence. Adams himself had appreciated it for a time, calling it “a tolerable summary of the arguments which I had been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months,” though in time came to scorn Paine (as the other founding fathers would) for his anti-religious writings and other grievances.

Paine is hailed by some as the “first blogger.” True, he was not a professional scholar (in England he had been a maker of stays for hoop dresses, and later a tax collector). But there are some key differences. Paine did not have his own press. (Benjamin Franklin had long retired from printing, and was in London at the time–having sent Paine to America the year before). Benjamin Rush unsuccessfully begged every printer in Philadelphia to print Common Sense, settling for Robert Bell. So desperate were they that Bell set rather onerous terms for profit sharing. Not that Bell would share any profits; he claimed that Paine owed him 30 pounds after the first thousand copies were printed. Bell refused to print Paine’s responses to critics in the second printing, though by that time other printers were willing to assist Paine. Paine engaged William and Thomas Bradford (whom Nelson reports are brothers, though other evidence suggests they were father and son) to print six thousand additional copies. Paine directed profits for the Bradford edition to the Continental Army.

Bell responded by attacking the Bradfords and Paine in advertisements. Paine was so fed up with Bell that he renounced the copyright so that any printer could make a copy; between 150,000 and 250,000 were printed through 1776. Still, he wished he did not have to do so; Payne later argued in favor of protecting literary property. It was 225 years ago to this very day that Paine wrote the letter below to George Washington (still at the time, General of the Continental Army; he did not resign his commission until December.) Nelson unearthed this from the New-York Historical Society; I reproduce it here.

Understanding that Congress has it in contemplation to recommend to the States the passing of a law for the security of literary property, I take the liberty of troubling Congress, with an anecdote which will serve to shew the necessity of such a measure. On the recommendation of Doctor Rush, I gave the manuscript copy of the pamphlet Common Sense to a certain printer of this city and as I did not intend to have any trouble with the work after it was printed, and had conceived it proper toward supporting the reputation of the principles of the pamphlet contained, that no parts of the profits arising from the sale should come into my hands, I, therefore, gave one half of the clear profits to the printer over and above is charge of printing–and the other half, I gave by my own hand to Mr. Thomas Pryor and Mr. Joseph Dean both of this city, to be received by them and disposed of to any public purpose they might choose, the particular thing mentioned to purchase woolen mittens for the soldiers then going to the Quebec Expedition. The printer not only kept the whole profits of the first edition, which he still retains [illegible] but in the course of two or three days printed [a] the second edition, and on my expressing some surprise at his doing without my knowledge, as I intended making additions to it, he very bluntly told me–I had no business with it.

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