Linkbait, Content Farming and Advertorial: Welcome To New Media (Circa 1842)

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I’m in the middle of reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, and it’s excellent (if a little fawning).

Given that I grew up just a few miles from the Medway town where Dickens spent his childhood, it’s pretty embarrassing how little I knew about the 19th century’s greatest British author. And given my obsession with copyright law, it’s equally shameful that, until reading Slater’s book, I knew nothing of his campaign for an International copyright treaty.

The campaign was well-meaning, but essentially self-interested: Dickens held the UK copyright of his famous works – like the Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist – but, in the USA (where Dickens was also hugely popular), publishers were free to steal his work and characters and republish them in books, newspapers and periodicals without paying royalties.

In 1842, the 30-year-old Dickens took his first trip to the USA to research a book about the former British colony (spoiler: as a world-famous champion of human rights, he wasn’t hugely impressed by slavery). While there, he took the opportunity to lecture Americans, and the American press, about the importance of international copyright. Given today’s insistence by that same press that journalists should be paid for their work, not to mention their bleating over content farms aggregating their features, you’d assume that American newspapers would have rallied to his cause.

Not quite.

After hearing Dickens’ lecture on copyright, the Hartford Times insisted that “we want no advice on this matter, and it will be better for Mr Dickens if he refrains from introducing [it] hereafter”, while the Boston Morning Post recommended: “You must drop that, Charlie, or you will be dished; it smells of the shop – rank.”

A few weeks later, the anti-Dickens feeling in the press had turned personal. The (Philadelphia) Spirit of the Times put the ad into ad-hominem by noting of Dickens that “his rather yellowed teeth shewed that he did not avail himself of Teaberry Tooth Wash.” Interestingly that same Teaberry Tooth Wash was a valued advertiser in the Spirit of the Times.

Few people who write about technology have more love for old school newspapers than me; and there have been few more vocal advocates on the importance of copyright in the digital age. But next time I hear newspaper publishers complaining about how the Internet is killing their business, I’m going to remember, with a smile, that 170 years ago the fledgling newspaper industry saw nothing wrong with aggregating the work of successful authors without payment, while writing reader-baiting articles with the sole purpose of embedding advertisements.

Or put another way: 170 years ago, American newspapers were Aol.