Copyright, Printsellers and Pirates: Art in the Courts in the Mid Nineteenth Century

Elena Cooper (CREATe, University of Glasgow), “Copyright, Printsellers and Pirates: Art in the Courts in the Mid Nineteenth Century”

This paper explores the role of illegal trade in ‘pirate’ photographs in the mid nineteenth century, in making art available to the wider public. In so doing, it draws on significant archival work relating to mid nineteenth century copyright cases brought by the leading printsellers of the time (such as Henry Graves and Ernest Gambart) against so-called ‘pirates’ distributing unauthorised photographic copies of engravings of popular paintings of the day (such as William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World and William Powell Frith’s The Railway Station). In reflecting on these legal decisions, the paper situates judicial approaches to the scope of copyright, within the context of debates taking place outside the court room, about the potential of new technology – photography - to revolutionise access to great art, to the benefit of a new class of purchaser. Recent scholarship focussing on literary copyright, has argued that the nineteenth century approach to infringement offers ‘wisdom’ that might be instructive today; the nineteenth century courts adopted a balancing test which included consideration of the social purpose of the defendant’s use.1 This paper argues that a focus on artistic, rather than literary copyright, reveals a more complex picture, and provides different conclusions for today about the relation between infringement rules, new technologies and public access.