Ezra Pound’s Copyright Statute: Perpetual Rights and the Problem of Heirs


This Article explores the historical and present-day significance of proposals for copyright reform advanced in 1918 by the controversial American poet, Ezra Pound. These proposals have never been discussed by legal scholars and have received but scant attention from literary scholars. Yet, like William Wordsworth and Mark Twain, whose efforts to reform copyright law are much better known, Pound is a major writer whose views shed considerable light on the state of copyright law and the conditions of authorship in his time. Pound’s proposed statute—offered as a “cure” for American book piracy—begins by making authors’ copyrights exclusive and perpetual, and goes on, surprisingly, to introduce broad compulsory-license provisions that would prevent authors and their heirs from interfering with later efforts to disseminate authors’ works and require publishers only to pay a fixed royalty on sales. The tension in Pound’s proposal between a perpetual, exclusive copyright and expansive compulsory licenses shows him to be an inheritor of two legal and economic traditions: on the one hand, a Lockean and Romantic belief in a strong property rule grounded in an author’s natural rights and unique personality, and, on the other, an anti-monopoly, free-trade preference for a liability rule that would encourage wide dissemination of affordable works to serve the public interest. As the author of such a dual-purpose proposal, Pound emerges as remarkably and presciently alert to the dangers currently posed by lengthy copyright terms unaccompanied by limitations that adequately protect the public. Today, the estates of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Samuel Beckett, and other modernist authors use extended copyrights to discourage or control use of those authors’ works by scholars, critics, and others. Pound’s perpetual, royalty-based copyright would, in principle, have removed or reduced such obstacles to the study and enjoyment of modernist authors. Moreover, Pound’s draft statute anticipates recent proposals by Richard Posner, Lawrence Lessig, and others for mitigating the conflict between the lengthy copyright monopoly and the needs of the public.

About the Author

Associate Professor, University of Tulsa College of Law; B.A. Lawrence University; M.A., Ph.D. Princeton University; J.D. Yale University

By uclalaw