An Old Law for a New Literature

Authors, Publishers and the Early Years of the Victorian Copyright Act 1869

Sarah Ailwood, Maree Sainsbury

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


This article analyses the early years of the operation of copyright legislation in the colony of Victoria, Australia. The Copyright Act 1869 (Vic) was introduced into a thriving but volatile colonial literary marketplace. The law was based almost wholly on the UK law at the time, existing in a very different environment. This article notes that despite the rhetoric of the protection of the right of authors as an aim of the law, the effect was something quite different. We examine the use of copyright by some key players in that colonial market, both publishers and authors. That analysis reveals that the prophetic words of George Higinbotham, that the law was not for the protection of the author, but the publisher, can be demonstrated to be true. This is evident both in the implementation of the law itself and in a number of inconsistencies in its operation. We conclude that, despite public and parliamentary rhetoric drawing on the romantic conception of the author as creator, the law’s conception of the author as proprietor offered little protection to local Australian authors writing new literature for a new country.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalLaw, Culture and the Humanities
Early online date2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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