Before Colbert, There was Twain

Long before Stephen Colbert added congressional witness to his resumé, Samuel L. Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—testified before a congressional committee. He did so in 1906 not within character, but as an author, for the topic at hand was copyright legislation. And as one of the most successful best-sellers of his day, he (and his heirs) had a direct interest in this bill. Clemens played it straight, noting his fondness for copyright and contending that ideas are property. But he could not help but be witty and amusing, and the lawmakers reportedly roared with laughter when he veered from the serious to the comic. Here are his  remarks. By the way, congressional testimony is not covered by copyright laws.

I have read this bill. At least I have read such portions as I could understand. Nobody but a practised legislator can read the bill and thoroughly understand it, and I am not a practised legislator.

I am interested particularly and especially in the part of the bill which concerns my trade. I like that extension of copyright life to the author’s life and fifty years afterward. I think that would satisfy any reasonable author, because it would take care of his children. Let the grand-children take care of themselves. That would take care of my daughters, and after that I am not particular. I shall then have long been out of this struggle, independent of it, indifferent to it.

It isn’t objectionable to me that all the trades and professions in the United States are protected by the bill. I like that. They are all important and worthy, and if we can take care of them under the Copyright law I should like to see it done. I should like to see oyster culture added, and anything else.

I am aware that copyright must have a limit, because that is required by the Constitution of the United States, which sets aside the earlier Constitution, which we call the decalogue. The decalogue says you shall not take away from any man his profit. I don’t like to be obliged to use the harsh term. What the decalogue really says is, “Thou shalt not steal,” but I am trying to use more polite language.

The laws of England and America do take it away, do select but one class, the people who create the literature of the land. They always talk handsomely about the literature of the land, always what a fine, great, monumental thing a great literature is, and in the midst of their enthusiasm they turn around and do what they can to discourage it.

I know we must have a limit, but forty-two years is too much of a limit. I am quite unable to guess why there should be a limit at all to the possession of the product of a man’s labor. There is no limit to real estate.

Doctor Hale has suggested that a man might just as well, after discovering a coal-mine and working it forty-two years, have the Government step in and take it away.

What is the excuse? It is that the author who produced that book has had the profit of it long enough, and therefore the Government takes a profit which does not belong to it and generously gives it to the 88,000,000 of people. But it doesn’t do anything of the kind. It merely takes the author’s property, takes his children’s bread, and gives the publisher double profit. He goes on publishing the book and as many of his confederates as choose to go into the conspiracy do so, and they rear families in affluence.

And they continue the enjoyment of those ill-gotten gains generation after generation forever, for they never die. In a few weeks or months or years I shall be out of it, I hope under a monument. I hope I shall not be entirely forgotten, and I shall subscribe to the monument myself. But I shall not be caring what happens if there are fifty years left of my copyright. My copyright produces annually a good deal more than I can use, but my children can use it. I can get along; I know a lot of trades. But that goes to my daughters, who can’t get along as well as I can because I have carefully raised them as young ladies, who don’t know anything and can’t do anything. I hope Congress will extend to them the charity which they have failed to get from me.

Why, if a man who is not even mad, but only strenuous – strenuous about race-suicide – should come to me and try to get me to use my large political and ecclesiastical influence to get a bill passed by this Congress limiting families to twenty-two children by one mother, I should try to calm him down. I should reason with him. I should say to him, “Leave it alone. Leave it alone and it will take care of itself. Only one couple a year in the United States can reach that limit. If they have reached that limit let them go right on. Let them have all the liberty they want. In restricting that family to twenty-two children you are merely conferring discomfort and unhappiness on one family per year in a nation of 88,000,000, which is not worth while.”

It is the very same with copyright. One author per year produces a book which can outlive the forty-two-year limit; that’s all. This nation can’t produce two authors a year that can do it; the thing is demonstrably impossible. All that the limited copyright can do is to take the bread out of the mouths of the children of that one author per year.

I made an estimate some years ago, when I appeared before a committee of the House of Lords, that we had published in this country since the Declaration of Independence 220,000 books. They have all gone. They had all perished before they were ten years old. It is only one book in 1000 that can outlive the forty-two-year limit.

Therefore why put a limit at all? You might as well limit the family to twenty-two children.

If you recall the Americans in the nineteenth century who wrote books that lived forty-two years you will have to begin with Cooper; you can follow with Washington Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edgar Allan Poe, and there you have to wait a long time. You come to Emerson, and you have to stand still and look further. You find Howells and T. B. Aldrich, and, then your numbers begin to run pretty thin, and you question if you can name twenty persons in the United States who in a whole century have written books that would live forty-two years. Why, you could take them all and put them on one bench there [pointing]. Add the wives and children and you could put the result on two or three more benches.

One hundred persons- that is the little, insignificant crowd whose bread-and-butter is to be taken away for what purpose, for what profit to anybody? You turn these few books into the hands of the pirate and of the legitimate publisher, too, and they get the profit that should have gone to the wife and children.

When I appeared before that committee of the House of Lords the chairman asked me what limit I would propose. I said, “Perpetuity.” I could see some resentment in his manner, and he said the idea was illogical, for the reason that it has long ago been decided that there can be no such thing as property in ideas. I said there was property in ideas before Queen Anne’s time; they had perpetual copyright. He said, “What is a book? A book is just built from base to roof on ideas, and there can be no property in it.” I said I wished he could mention any kind of property on this planet that had a pecuniary value which was not derived from an idea or ideas. He said real estate.

I put a supposititious case, a dozen Englishmen who travel through South Africa and camp out, and eleven of them see nothing at all; they are mentally blind. But there is one in the party who knows what this harbor means and what the lay of the land means. To him it means that some day a railway will go through here, and there on that harbor a great city will spring up.

That is his idea. And he has another idea, which is to go and trade his last bottle of Scotch whiskey and his last horse-blanket to the principal chief of that region and buy a piece of land the size of Pennsylvania. That was the value of an idea that the day would come when the Cape to Cairo Railway would be built.

Every improvement that is put upon the real estate is the result of an idea in somebody’s head. The skyscraper is another idea; the railroad is another; the telephone and all those things are merely symbols which represent ideas. An andiron, a wash-tub, is the result of an idea that did not exist before.

So if, as that gentleman said, a book does consist solely of ideas, that is the best argument in the world that it is property, and should not be under any limitation at all. We don’t ask for that.

Fifty years from now we shall ask for it.

I hope the bill will pass without any deleterious amendments. I do seem to be extraordinarily interested in a whole lot of arts and things that I have got nothing to do with. It is a part of my generous, liberal nature; I can’t help it.

I feel the same sort of charity to everybody that was manifested by a gentleman who arrived at home at two o’clock in the morning from the club and was feeling so perfectly satisfied with life, so happy, and so comfortable, and there was his house weaving, weaving, weaving around. He watched his chance, and by and by when the steps got in his neighborhood he made a jump and climbed up and got on the portico.

And the house went on weaving and weaving and weaving, but he watched the door, and when it came around his way he plunged through it. He got to the stairs, and when he went up on all fours the house was so unsteady that he could hardly make his way, but at last he got to the top and raised his foot and put it on the top step. But only the toe hitched on the step, and he rolled down and fetched up on the bottom step, with his arm around the newel-post, and he said: “God pity the poor sailors out at sea on a night like this.”


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  • David Corn

    David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief and an on-air analyst for MSNBC. He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff), and The Lies of George W. Bush, as well as the e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook.