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Charles Dickens and copyright law.

Charles Dickens is famous as a Victorian storyteller par excellence. Through his novels he campaigned for social justice and educational reform (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby to name just two); created memorable male characters (David Copperfield, Pip in Great Expectations, and Scrooge in The Christmas Carol); but wasn’t so hot on portraying realistic women (Little Dorrit).

His works were very popular, with readers waiting impatiently for each installment, and family groups gathering round the hearth whilst the new episode was read out loud (no telly in those days). But, despite personally campaigning through his literature for better education for all, his books were primarily bought by the educated middle classes – they were too expensive for poorer people.

This left a gap in the market for unscrupulous jobbing writers who tapped into the widespread wish to read Dickens. For a fraction of the selling price, they would churn out pastiches of the originals – Oliver Twiss, Nickelas Nickleberry etc. By all accounts, these rip-offs were dreadful. But they were affordable, and they got the working classes reading in their thousands.

Edward Lloyd, an enterprising (and soon very rich) publisher, at one time had around a dozen writers working for him on Dickens-like stories – often with the final installment coming out before Dickens had written his.

Understandably, Dickens became exasperated by this abuse of his efforts and in 1837 he took Lloyd to court in an attempt to ban the publication of The Penny Pickwick. He failed because the judge pronounced that the rip-off was so dreadful no-one would be fooled into thinking it was The Pickwick Papers by the great man himself. However the case was a significant step on the way to the creation of copyright law in the UK.

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