With respect to copyright law, periodicals have followed a different trajectory than books, and much of that difference has to do with the heterogeneous nature of newspapers and magazines. In the early twentieth century, periodicals in the United States and Great Britain obtained blanket copyrights that covered most of their contents, but this logic did not apply to the much more fluid textual universe of the nineteenth century. The timing of the first copyright claims, and the extent to which these claims were respected, depended upon evolving attitudes toward the genre and subject matter of the texts in question. Serial novels were treated differently than poems, biographical sketches, or political essays, not to mention telegraphic dispatches or price lists. In the absence of clear legislation, editors of periodicals policed each other, arguing over what could be copied and how such copied material should be acknowledged or given “credit.” As they alternatively complained about or encouraged copying, authors and publishers debated the shifting boundaries of what Meredith McGill has called the “culture of reprinting.” Changes in the copyright statute only came later, after individuals had experimented with existing laws and tried to create new norms for the republication of texts.
Will Slauter is an Associate Professor of English and member of the Center for Historical Research at the University of Paris Diderot.