Who was Miss Margaret Lee?

In honor of International Women’s Day, let’s give a tip of the hat to author Margaret Lee, whoever she was. According to Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 49, November 1899 – April 1900, Miss Margaret Lee of Brooklyn, NY was the “author or sixteen published books, mostly novels.” Her obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 26, 1914, adds a bit more. It describes her as “the authoress of more than seventy books of contemporary fiction and many pamphlets on controversial interests issued through the magazines and daily press….” The obit mentions neither spouse nor children.

If anyone out there is a Margaret Lee scholar, please share in the comments. But the reason I mention her today is that it was Miss Lee who wrote the Authors’ Petition of 1899 asking Congress to abolish the then 42-year term of copyright protection in favor of a “perpetual copyright.” The petition was signed by “an overwhelming majority of the leading authors, editors and journalists of the United States,” according to the Monthly. And among the signatories was Susan B. Anthony, which is not to be underestimated, in my view, because literary property, as well as literary expression itself, was and remains essential to the cause of women’s rights.

Although copyright critics may be quick to note that a “perpetual copyright” would be an unconstitutional violation of the “for limited times” clause and/or call me a maximalist for celebrating the petition here, it is not entirely clear that Miss Lee and the signatories literally meant “for the rest of all time,” either. I say this because the petition notes how many nations, including several far less productive than the U.S., had already adopted life-of-the-author-plus regimes for copyright protection. Most importantly, Miss Lee articulates core principles of justice on which authorial rights are founded and in honor of the day, I present her petition in its entirety.

AUTHORS’ PETITION (1899)

To the Congress of the United States this petition is submitted:

We, the undersigned authors, editors, journalists, etc., do hereby call your attention to the limitations of copyright now legally existing and ask that they be abolished. We demand perpetual copyright. We believe that property in brain work is as real as property in stocks, bonds and real estate. We claim that mental labor is as honest and as individual as manual industry, or any business activity. 

We know that the profession of authorship requires years of study and preparation. Under the present system an author loses all right in his book when it has been published forty-two years.

Suppose a writer has a book published when he is twenty years old. If he reaches the age of sixty-two he has no further claim on it. It may be a popular work, it may be selling by thousands of copies, but the author may be in need of money for his daily bread. Authorship, like other professions, tells [sic] on the worker. There comes to him a time when he should be able to reap the full harvest of his early labors. He should have he royalty on every book that he has written during his life and be able to will his right in his work to his heirs.

When a law permits injustice the period for its repeal has arrived. To-day in the United States there are many writers whose early works are scattered broadcast by publishers who, as a mere business matter, bring out the popular books that were copyrighted before 1857. The law gives them the right to reprint such volumes ; the authors have no redress.

Perpetual copyright is the natural due of all authors. In Queen Anne’s reign, when laws regarding the limiting of copyright were first enforced, the price of books was very high. Our government copied the English legislation on the question. In 1831 the present system became law.

Sixty-eight years have passed. The masses can buy books.

This is an era of progress, and the truth is that instead of being in the lead the United States is behind the age in her method of dealing with authors. Here are some facts: In Russia, copyright exists during an author’s life, twenty-five years after his death, and ten years in addition if an edition of his works is published within five years of his end of the term. In Spain, author’s life and fifty years thereafter. In Germany, for author’s life and thirty years thereafter. In France, author’s life and fifty years thereafter. Austria, Sardinia, Tuscany and the Papal States, author’s life and thirty years thereafter. Holland and Belgium, author’s life and twenty years thereafter.

We demand that the United States shall at once take the foremost position and make copyright perpetual. We ask that the law may take immediate effect, in the cause of justice, and apply to all copyrights given during the year 1858 and since that date. The reason of the law is the life of the law ; the reason for the putting of any restriction on the life of copyright having disappeared, the limitation should cease, and the right of the author in his works should be perpetual.

The United States finally adopted a life-of-the-author-plus-50-years term of protection with passage of the 1976 Copyright Act. That was two years after women were allowed to get their own credit cards and four years before the U.S. established this week as National Women’s History Week. Make of these contemporary events what you will, but to borrow from Miss Lee, it really can take the U.S. a long damn time before law no longer “permits injustice.”  So, thanks to those who insist upon reform.

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