Publishing Peter Pindar: Production, Profits and Piracy in Georgian Satire
Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 112, no. 2 (2018), pp. 149-182.
34 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2018 Last revised: 11 Jun 2019
Date Written: August 13, 2018
As the scurrilous poet ‘Peter Pindar,’ John Wolcot was the most provocative English political satirist in the late 18th century. His smirkingly disrespectful lampooning of the King and his ministers brought him widespread popularity and profits but also perilously close to prosecution for seditious libel in the mid-1790s in a period of patriotic zeal when the Pitt government was pressing indictments against dissenting and reformist writers. So Wolcot’s claim of copyright infringement against his own publisher John Walker seemed miscalculated, as it provoked the common law assumption that prospectively libelous and therefore criminal works were a threat to public order and therefore ineligible for court protection under copyright. While at the time perhaps an inconsequential procedural ruling, Walcot v. Walker (1802) would inadvertently become a benchmark in copyright law doctrine. In an effort to provide some contextual perspective to the ruling and its interpretation, this essay examines the scale and trend lines of Wolcot’s canon of works to that point, focusing on his production costs, wholesale and retail price structures, and the degree to which his profits were threatened by literary piracy and he might have reasonably sought copyright protection. It finds that the same production strategy that had carried him to the apex of political notoriety and commercial success by 1790 also made it imperative for him sell his copyrights to his publisher and eventually sue over disagreements on conditions of their sale.
Keywords: 18th Century English Satire, Libel, Production Costs, Canon, John Wolcot, Copyright
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