A version of this post originally appeared in Information Today.

WIPO and many other organizations involved with intellectual property (IP) are celebrating World IP Day on April 26. IP is, basically, an abstract term used to describe the various forms of legal protection provided by governments for works of the mind—creative innovation of all types, especially including copyright and patents (but also including trademarks, trade dress, trade secrets, design patents, and other forms of protection).

Sam Clemens of Hannibal, Mo. (later of Hartford, Conn., and then the world), who under the pseudonym Mark Twain wrote many enduring works of fiction and satire, helped to build up the canon of American literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while making and losing several fortunes in the process. In observation of World IP Day, which falls close on the calendar to the 110th anniversary of Twain’s death (April 21), here are some of Twain’s most notable efforts to protect his works through copyright and IP:

  • In 1871, he was granted the first of several patents for inventions of his own. He also made investments in the inventions of others, most of which did not pan out—in fact, quite the opposite. Despite this, he maintained an interest in technical innovation throughout his life, purchasing high-tech (proto-steampunk?) devices and writing speculatively about other ones yet to exist.
  • Obviously, as a writer, editor, and publisher, he was deeply familiar with the vagaries of 19th-century copyright. He also acted as a copyright lobbyist, arguing before Congress for term extension (having accepted, grudgingly, that perpetual copyright could not be legitimated under U.S. law).
  • Late in life, he incorporated the Mark Twain Company, using it to license his name for use on products such as cigars and whiskey. Some of these artifacts are still extant and valued by collectors. He at least once took legal action against a “Twain imitator”—long before Hal Holbrook was born.
  • One company still offers licensing for some IP from the Mark Twain estate, presumably for uses in movies and other high-value new creative works. Although his desire for perpetual copyright was not achieved, his—probably—final unpublished work, Autobiography of Mark Twain (three volumes from the University of California Press), was released in a scholarly edition over successive years from 2010 to 2015, and some of that newly released material, astonishingly for someone who died in 1910, falls under copyright.

As with the sci-fi devices he dreamed up for his fiction, Twain’s IP initiatives looked ahead to a time of IP entrepreneurs such as David Bowie and Bill Gates, who produced works of the mind—both of the sort protected by copyright and those “discoveries” protected by patent. If he were to comment on World IP Day, his remarks might be something along the lines of:

“A man invents a thing which could revolutionize the arts, produce mountains of money, and bless the earth, and who will bother with it or show any interest in it?—and so you are just as poor as you were before. But you invent some worthless thing to amuse yourself with, and would throw it away if let alone, and all of a sudden the whole world makes a snatch for it and out crops a fortune.”

—Mark Twain, The American Claimant (1892)


Author: Dave Davis

Dave Davis joined CCC in 1994 and currently serves as a research consultant. He previously held directorships in both public and corporate libraries and earned joint master’s degrees in Library and Information Sciences and Medieval European History from Catholic University of America. He is the owner/operator of Pyegar Press, LLC.
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