Diderot's Letter on the book trade, Paris (1763)

Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France : Mss. Fr. (Naf) 24232 n°3

Diderot's Letter on the book trade, Paris (1763), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org

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            Chapter 1 Page 1 of 45 total


A historical and political letter to a magistrate on the book trade,
its former and current state, its regulations, privileges, tacit
permissions, censors, pedlars, the expansion of trade across the
river and other subjects relating to literary laws.

Denis Diderot

Sir, you wish to know my ideas on a matter which seems very important to
you, which indeed it is. I am too greatly flattered by this request not
to reply with the promptness which you demand and the impartiality which
you may rightly expect from a man of my character. You believe me to be
an educated man; indeed, I have that knowledge which is provided by everyday
experience, to say nothing of my honest conviction that good faith is not
always a sufficient excuse for error. I sincerely think that in the discussion of
matters which pertain to the common good, it would be more appropriate to
remain silent than to take the risk, albeit with the best of intentions, of filling
a magistrate’s mind with false and pernicious ideas.
      Firstly, therefore, I tell you that what is at stake here are not simply the
interests of a guild. After all, what does it matter to me whether there is one
more or one fewer corporation – I, who am one of the most zealous partisans of
liberty in its broadest sense; who suffer in distress to see the latest talent
hindered in the exercise of his gifts, eager to get to work but finding that his
hands, given to him by nature, are tied by conventions; who have always been
convinced that corporations are unjust and harmful; and who would see their entire
and absolute abolition as a step towards sounder government?
      What is in fact at stake is the examination, in the current state of affairs
but equally in any other circumstances, of what consequences must result from the
attacks which have been made and which could continue to be made on the publishing
trade; whether we must suffer any longer the encroachments of foreigners on its
activities; what connection there is between this trade and literature; whether
it is possible to harm one without damaging the other, and to impoverish the
publisher without ruining the author; what privileges are in the book trade; whether
these privileges ought to be classified under the general and odious category of
other exclusive rights; if there are any legitimate grounds to limiting their duration
and to refusing their renewal; what the nature is of capital in the book trade; what
deeds of possession apply to a work which a publisher acquires by the cession of an
author; whether these are only temporary, or if they are eternal. The consideration
of these different points will lead me to the clarification of other matters which
you ask of me.
      But before I begin, you must remember, sir, that – without mentioning the
indecent rashness of a public figure in saying, regardless of the circumstances,
that if one realises that one has taken a poor course of action, one has only to
retrace one’s steps and undo what one has done, an unworthy and stupid way of
mocking the condition and fortune of citizens – you must be aware, I say, that
it is more unfortunate to fall into poverty than to be born into it; that the condition
of a people which has been brutalised is worse than that of a people born brute; that
a branch of trade that has gone astray is branch of trade that has been lost; and
that more damage can be done in ten years than can be repaired in a century. You
must be aware that the more long-lasting the consequences of bad policing, the more
essential it is to be circumspect, whether laws need to be established or repealed;
and in the latter case, I ask you if there would not be a rather strange vanity, if
one would not be committing a gratuitous injury against those who have preceded us in
the application of the law, in treating them as imbeciles without bothering to look at
the origins of their institutions, without examining the causes which brought them into
being, and without following the favourable and less favourable fortunes which they
have undergone. It seems to me that it is in the history of laws and regulations that
we must seek real reasons for maintaining or abandoning current practices: therefore,
this is where I shall begin. We shall have to step back and consider matters from a
distance, but even if I teach you nothing, you will at least recognise that I began
with the notions that you wished me to consider. Therefore have the indulgence, sir,
to read what follows.


No Transcription available.

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