Copyright and Canadian Publishing

  • Eli MacLaren
    Dominion and Agency: Copyright and the Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade. University of Toronto Press
Reviewed by Sara Bannerman

Many in the publishing industry today argue that longer and stronger copyright is key to the success of the publishing industry. In Dominion and Agency: Copyright and the Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade 1867-1918, Eli MacLaren attempts to explain the early failures of the Canadian publishing industry, asking why the creation of the Canadian state in 1867 was not accompanied by the simultaneous rise of Canadian publishing. Copyright law, he argues, is responsible for having arrested the development of Canadian publishing and Canadian literature. At the same time, he argues that lack of copyright contributed to the literary success of certain authors.

Caught between British and American copyright systems that granted copyright in large markets when first publication in Canada did not, Canadian authors were forced to look to foreign publishers to obtain copyright and publication in larger markets, and many emigrated as a result. Canadian publishers, unable therefore to compete in the production of original Canadian works, were also largely shut out of the market for reprinted British books. Imperial copyright law held back Canadian publishers, while American publishers, who did not recognize international copyright until 1909 and who conditioned recognition of Canadian copyright on American manu- facturing until 1962, flourished by selling unauthorized reprints of British books on both sides of the border. American legalized piracy, MacLaren argues, laid the ground- work for a successful publishing industry in the United States (as it did in other countries as well, including Scotland and Ireland) by allowing publishers to accumulate the capital and other means to embark on original publishing. Canada was pre- vented from following this path by Imperial and international copyright law.

MacLaren’s detailed account of the wind- ing path of Canadian copyright between Confederation and 1918 centres on two key moments in Canadian copyright history. Much of the book deals with the conception (chapter 1), achievement (chapter 2), clarification (chapter 3), and impact (chapter 4) of the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875, which was a limited and somewhat unsuccessful attempt to solve the problems of Canadian publishers that ultimately served British publishers more than Canadian ones. The book also deals with the Canadian Copyright Act of 1900 (chapter 5), which was much more successful in allowing Canadian publishers to republish foreign works. It was the 1900 Act that effectively established the agency system in Canada.

MacLaren also points to several examples where failure to secure American copyright actually bolstered the success of Canadian authors. He highlights Ralph Connor (chapter 6), whose success has usually been ascribed to the humour and morality of his writing and characters, and the ability of his stories to connect with readers in the midst of the cultural upheaval of the time. MacLaren argues that these were not the only reasons for Connor’s success; Connor had no copyright in the United States as a result of the fact that he published in Toronto and failed to simultaneously pub- lish an American edition of his first novel, Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks (1898). This allowed the unauthorized reproduction of his work throughout the United States. The inexpensive reprints of his work sold throughout the United States and Canada assured Connor’s literary career. They did not, however, assure the security of Connor’s Canadian publisher, nor of the Canadian publishing industry, both of which remained precarious despite hav- ing made crucial editorial contributions to Connor’s success.

MacLaren’s is a thoroughly researched, detailed, and clear-sighted account of the early history of copyright in Canada. It is an important contribution that contains significant insight into the development of publishing in Canada.



This review “Copyright and Canadian Publishing” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 177-78.

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