The right to read, circa 1906

For a few years in the early 1900s, some American book publishers came up with a brave new marketing paradigm. Instead of offering books for sale the old-fashioned way, they essentially decided to license them. Purchasers were warned of dire legal consequences if they didn’t go along with the licenses attached to the books. If, for instance, you bought Kate Meredith, Financier, published in 1906, you would be greeted by this text on the first page:


“This copyright volume is offered for sale to the public only through the authorized agents of the publishers, who are permitted to sell it only at retail and at fifty cents per copy, and with the express condition and reservation that it shall not, prior to August 1st, 1907, be resold, or offered or advertised for resale. The purchaser from them agrees to this condition and reservation by the acceptance of this copy. In case of any breach thereof, the title to this book immediately reverts to the publishers. Any defacement, alteration or removal of this notice will be prosecuted by the publishers to the full extent of of the law.”


It wasn’t just done with books, either. Here’s a similar license from a 1907 Edison cylinder record.

In 1908, however, the Supreme Court would put an end to these kinds of licenses, in Bobbs-Merrill vs. Straus. That case helped establish the first sale doctrine, which basically says that a buyer of a book really does own it, and has the right to keep it, share it, lend it, resell it, give it away, or otherwise dispose of it as they see fit, just like they can with other things they buy. Congress would eventually codify this doctrine, with various qualifications, in the copyright statutes; it’s now section 109 of the copyright code.

So thanks to the courts and Congress of a century ago, you can pick up a book in a bookstore and buy it with confidence. You don’t have to carefully look it over in the store or show it to an expert to figure out what you’re allowed to do with it when you’re through reading it yourself.

At least, you don’t if it’s a print book. When you buy pay for an ebook from the bookstores for the best-known current “reading devices”, however, it’s a different story.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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1 Response to The right to read, circa 1906

  1. Paul Courant says:

    Nice story. I’m sure that Pat Schroeder is shedding a tear for the good old days.

    But what’s the August 1, 1907 about? Was there some notion that this exclusive ownership arrangement expired after a while? Sort of a public version of delayed open access? Does anyone know?

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