... perhaps one of the most well-known Christmas stories, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, was pirated? Read on…
A Christmas Carol was published in December 1843. But it was pirated. It seems that even in 19th century Britain there were any number of fraudsters who were only too willing to rip off authors!
Realising that Dickens was a well-known writer and hoping to make a significant profit for little effort, Richard Egan Lee, John Haddock and Henry Hewitt pirated Dickens' story and published a first instalment in their own weekly rag called ‘Parley’s Illuminated Library’. The intention was to continue with instalments of the story.
But Dickens decided enough was enough. This wasn’t the first time his work had been plagiarised, but it was the first time that he took legal action. Dickens sued the pirates in court with the case beginning on January 9th, 1844. The case was heard in the Court of Chancery, which was a court of equity rather than a criminal court. Dickens' lawyer pleaded that his reputation as a writer had been tarnished by the piracy, that his income from the book would be reduced, and that his intellectual property had been stolen. Not that that particular term was used back then.
Interestingly, Lee, Haddock and Hewitt argued that they had ‘re-originated’ and ‘condensed’ the story, thereby ‘improving’ it for the general reader. They were determined to fight the case and had the temerity to suggest to the court that their version of the story was far superior to Dickens' original! Therefore, Mr Dickens should be pleased with their work and not seek redress in court.
When comparisons were made between Dickens' story and the ‘improved’ version of Lee, Haddock and Hewitt it became clear that the story had not been materially changed despite the use of the new title of ‘A Christmas Ghost Story’. Indeed, the central characters and the overall plot were barely disguised. The case was settled in Dickens' favour and Lee, Haddock and Hewitt were ordered to surrender any remaining copies of their work for destruction, to pay compensation, and to pay all court costs.
However, Dickens did get some solace from the case. He got his story back, and his personal experience of the Court of Chancery would undoubtedly have provided the necessary insight to write Bleak House which he published in 1852. He also worked hard to get the Court of Chancery reformed.
If you enjoyed reading this post you might also be interested in a related post about Dickens which you can see Here
The illustrations are all taken from my 1930 Odhams Press illustrated edition.