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  • Geneva v. Saint Petersburg:Two Concepts of Literary Property and the Material Lives of Books in Under Western Eyes
  • Shafquat Towheed (bio)

International copyright law has often been viewed as having an incidental effect on the life of the book and an accidental, sometimes beneficial, sometimes detrimental impact on the financial and literary success of the author. The determining influence of the scope and penetration of copyright law on the production, distribution, and reception of books has been increasingly acknowledged by book historians: for example, James West in his work on the implications for Anglo-American publishing practice of the United States International Copyright Act of 1891 (the "Chace Act") and William St. Clair in his demonstration of the effect of copyright law in shaping the Romantic canon. But relatively little attention has been given to the creative implications for the composition of individual works of literature, and even less to the critical interpretation of the fiction itself.1 Scholars usually examine the effects of copyright law systemically rather than phenomenologically, but in this essay I want to offer a micro rather than a macro perspective. I will look at the multiple, involved, and sometimes determining exigencies of specific changes in national and international copyright law for our reading and interpretation of just one novel: Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes (1911).

From the starting point of the conferences of Paris (1878), London (1879) and most importantly, the Association littéraire et artistique internationale (ALAI) in Berne (1883), the progressive and discontinuous expansion of both the domain and the effectiveness of international copyright legislation, mirroring trends in the book trade, meant increasing remuneration for authors, and greater legal recognition of their rights. The Swiss government's continued engagement with—and diplomatic support for—this process resulted in the Berne Convention of 1886–87, the first tentative [End Page 169] multilateral copyright law.2 Three parallel processes, sometimes mutually imbricated and sometimes contradictory, shaped the textual sociology of Conrad's writing throughout his career: first, the progressive development of international copyright, articulated by the Berne Convention; second, the movement toward the ratification and incorporation of the Berne Convention into United Kingdom law (seen through the drafting and implementation of the 1911 Copyright Act); and finally, the partial amelioration in 1909 of the most important copyright law for Conrad himself, the selectively bilateral American 1891 International Copyright Act.3 None of these developments were either inevitable or necessarily predictable, and in my examination of Under Western Eyes, I do not want to read the interaction between copyright law and literature teleologically, but rather I wish to interrogate the novel as the location of transactions between two mutually interdependent (and sometimes contradictory) discourses.

The 1911 United Kingdom Copyright Act, effective from 1 July 1912, replaced seventeen previous acts. Authorial protection was extended to the period of the author's life plus fifty years (the 1842 Act had offered either forty-two years or the life of the author plus seven years, whichever was greater), and all areas of original production were placed under the same jurisdiction, including dramatic adaptation, translation, cinema and recording rights, and unpublished material.4 This comprehensive updating of authorial rights was matched by a new recognition of the range of material that merited copyright protection. While the 1842 Act used the definition of a "book" to determine copyright protection, the 1911 Act extended the domain of copyright protection by using the term "literary work."5

For Joseph Conrad, the 1911 United Kingdom Act (which incorporated into British law many of the requirements of the Berne Convention) and the 1909 U.S. Act (which revised the terms of the 1891 Chace Act) were critical in securing his precarious financial situation. They allowed him to pursue simultaneous serialization and publication on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as to sell film adaptation rights for his novels to the new Hollywood studios, thereby paying off some of his mounting debts to his long-suffering agent, J. B. Pinker.6 Although Conrad may not have understood the minutiae of the changing international copyright climate, he was not unaware of the implications of changes in American law. As early as 6 March 1909...


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