Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Copyright and “Dramatic Clubs”

12.16.12 | | 7 comments

HoraceGWhitneySince I’m late getting this post up, I found a short statement from an Improvement Era article that I haven’t seen elsewhere. Where most of the statements we find from General Authorities and in Church magazines focus on the morality of the content of literature, urging Church members to select only the good, and writers and artists to create only the moral, this statement instead talks about the morality of how we use literature—specifically respect for the author’s rights. Fortunately, it is also a statement about something that is very relevant to today’s conversations about literature.

A half-brother to Orson F. Whitney, Horace K. Whitney (1858-1920) was also a grandson of early Mormon leader Newell K. Whitney. A writer by age 15, Horace studied at the University of Deseret before leaving school to take a job as a bookkeeper in 1873, starting a 10 year career at a bank the following year. During those years he maintained his literary interests as a member of the Zeta Gamma Debating Society and the Wasatch Literary Association. In 1884 he joined the staff of the Salt Lake Herald and in 1887 was promoted to assistant manager, later becoming the sole manager of the paper. In 1899 he was hired by President Lorenzo Snow as business manager of the Deseret News, where he remained until his health began to fail in April of 1920 (he died in October of that year). During his tenure he also served as the Deseret News’ Music and Dramatic critic. Whitney helped found the Home Dramatic Club in 1880 and served as its manager before moving on to serve as the manager of the Salt Lake Opera Company. He also led the Salt Lake 18th Ward Choir for 35 years.

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A Word to Dramatic Clubs—Copyright

by Horace G. Whitney

…while on the subject of these copyrighted plays, let me add this remark, that the dramatic organizations among the Latter-day Saints should take their stand on the side of those who accord to the authors of these plays their undoubted right to be paid for the products of their brains. The law protects the author who copyrights his play, just as it does the inventor who patents his invention, and the man, woman, or society who appropriates the ideas of an author, simply violates the commandment which says, “Thou shalt not steal.” The land is full of pirates and unauthorized agents who sell stolen versions of standard plays at “cut rates.” If you are ambitious to produce copyrighted plays, deal with the author or his representative; the old Home Dramatic Club, of which ex-Governor Wells and Bishop O. F. Whitney were once members, established itself strongly with the foremost dramatic publishers of the country by paying the due royalties to the authors of the copyrighted plays they brought out, and it is pleasant to know that the various ambitious productions of the dramatic departments of our several state and Church universities and colleges, are all made after due and proper arrangements with the owner of the plays. The laborer is worthy of his hire.

Improvement Era, v13 n6, April 1910

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I’m not sure that this statement is of much help in today’s debates over copyright, since the environments at these two times are so different. Nor does its content differ from the arguments in favor of copyright that are being made today. However, Whitney’s statement does establish the basic principle of copyright—that an author does deserve to be compensated for his or her work and that users should pay authors the royalties due. And Whitney clearly sees this as a moral principle, when he equates misappropriation of an author’s work, as many do today, with theft.

Still, I’m not sure that he could have imagined the issues we face today.

7 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Copyright and “Dramatic Clubs”

  1. Terrance V. Mc Arthur

    Whitney saw it as simple honesty; you pay for what you use.
    Issues of derivative rights, fair use, and electronic plagiarism were far from his realm of possibility. Copyright is a major issue in the library, adaptation, and storytelling fields, and there are many slippery concepts. If the Golden Rule is used as the standard for measurement, would it be any simpler?

  2. Kent Larsen Post author

    Perhaps, Wm. But since this was published in the Improvement Era, I suspect that they were part of the MIA program. Elsewhere in this same article (I’ll post more next week) Whitney talks as if this was a suggested part of the program in every ward.

  3. Mark Penny

    I’ll check the links, but, oh, sure, a different thing, no doubt. But where did the institutionalized theatre tradition come from, eh?

  4. Terrance V. Mc Arthur

    We’ve often heard of Brigham Young’s support for the theatre, but it was encouraged in other areas. Lorenzo Snow sent my great-grandfather to Salt Lake City to learn how theatre’s were built before the construction of the Brigham City Opera House. He also had the members of the troupe go to take out their endowments (at the Endowment house, I believe), as “he said it would make better boys and girls of us.”

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