Libel and Copyright in the Satire of Peter Pindar
Notes and Queries (2017), 64(3): 497-499
3 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2017 Last revised: 7 Oct 2019
Date Written: October 28, 2017
In 1802, the English Chancery Court denied the satirical poet John Wolcot (‘Peter Pindar’) injunctive relief for copyright infringement claimed against his publisher John Walker. While the original agreement between the parties was ambiguous, the ruling was more procedural rather than interpretive. As Wolcot’s verse was always scandalous and arguably libelous, Eldon ruled that Wolcot should first establish his property in the contested works at law before seeking equitable relief, to thereby clear away any question of their criminality. This was arguably the first application to copyright of an eighteenth-century maxim that there could be no property in criminally-libelous literary works. Almost immediately and for over the next century in equity cases and both English and American legal treatises, Eldon’s ruling was interpreted as establishing the Court as censor morum, authorized under common law to rule exceptions to copyright protection based on a determination of illicit or illegal content, regardless of whether copyright statutes specified content-based exceptions. However, a careful review of the Chancery records reveals the ruling warrants a more tempered reading, and that the long-assumed legal precedent may have followed a hoped-for rather than established principle.
Keywords: libel, copyright law, satire, literary
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