'Uncle Tom' at Law, New York (1853)

Source: American Antiquarian Society

'Uncle Tom' at Law, New York (1853), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,

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Chapter 1 Page 1


      Mrs. STOWE'S famous novel, after a career without
precedent in literature, has at last arrived where litera-
ture can show plenty of precedents - it has got before
the Courts. It seems that Mr. F. W. THOMAS, a book-
seller of Philadelphia, has caused Uncle Tom's Cabin to
be translated into German, and has issued it in that lan-
guage. This Mrs. Stowe regards as a violation of her
copyright, and she has accordingly commenced a suit in
the U.S. Circuit Court of that city against the publish-
er. In her complaint she not only alleges that she is
the author of the original work, but that she has caus-
ed a German translation of it to be prepared and pub-
lished, with the sale of which, as well as with her essen-
tial property in the book, the translation of Mr. Thomas
is in conflict. She accordingly asks for a perpetual
injunction upon his publication. And, whether in or-
der that the principle involved may be settled, or
because she considers herself greatly wronged in this
case, or with a view to prevent other translations which
might be made, she has declined a proposal to com-
promise with Mr. Thomas, and insists on letting the law
take its course. We are glad, for the sake of having
the principle determined, that she has done so.
      It is an interesting question that is raised in this suit,
namely, Whether the property of an author in his book
extends beyond the language in which it is written, or
whether a version of it into another idiom forms a new
and distinct property belonging solely to the translator
by whom it is made. As for the absolute moral right, we
see nothing in the nature of things to limit the own-
ership of the author. It is his work, and it ought to
be for him to say on what terms others shall enjoy it,
in whatsoever time, place, or tongue. Such seems
to be the essential right of the case, - which is legiti-
mately subject only to such limitations and conditions
as Society, acting for the general welfare, may see fit to
establish. This right is recognized in the only copy-
right treaty with which we are acquainted between na-
tions of different language. No French book can now be
translated and published in England, nor can any French
play be translated and performed on the English stage
without the permission of the author; and Bulwer's
last novel is published in England with a notice forbid-

Chapter 1 Page 2

ding it to be printed in French, as the author designs to
issue it at Paris in a version prepared under his own
      But while the author has a moral claim to such ex-
clusive property in his book, it is far from certain that
our legislation is such as Mrs. Stowe's complaint against
Mr. Thomas would seem to suppose. Mr. Commissioner
Curtis, in his thorough and lucid treatise on Copyright,
- the best manual of the law on the subject, - while
inclining on general considerations, to favor the ex-
clusive right of the American author to publish his
work in other languages in this country, still says that
the question is an open one. However, the case is not
directly foreseen or provided for by the statute; and
unless Mrs. Stowe's position can be established in-
ferentially from its spirit, or from the construction of
some hitherto unnoticed phrase in its language, the
Court will have to decide against her. Should it do so,
a revision of the statute on copyright will be more than
ever necessary.
      A point in the law, which would seem to be in favor of
Mr. Thomas, is the established right of any one to take
an author's work and rewrite it, or abridge it, putting the
same ideas into other words. This is a very considerable
limitation upon the absolute right of property, and may
very easily be construed to extend to translations. It
is not possible to say that a translation is in the same
words as the original, for not only is it in a different
language, but the construction of the sentences and the
very form of expression are often entirely changed.
Certainly it is a less infringement of the author's
right than an abridgement, for it is addressed to a public
quite different from that for which the work was first
written, while an abridgement may come into direct
competition with the original. Moreover, the law
already considers translations of foreign books as inde-
pendent works, and grants copyrights for them according-
ly. Whether the translation of an American book be-
longs in the same category, is now to be decided.
      With regard to the merits of the contending Ger-
man translations of "Uncle Tom," we cannot speak in
detail, not having thoroughly examined either. But
from some specimens we have seen, we judge the one
published by Mr. Thomas to be superior to that made
for Mrs. Stowe. At any rate, the latter has some very
gross faults, which prove that the translator neither
understands English thoroughly, nor knows how to write
German with respectable correctness.

Transcription by: Megan Wren


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