Author James Blish complains about pirated fiction — back in 1951

The digital age has spawned an ongoing literary argument between authors who fear their works are too easily being pirated and authors like Cory Doctorow who believe current copyright laws are failing to serve artists (along with a million different views on the issue.) While I personally align more with Doctorow's position, I totally understand the concern of authors who fear that the free distribution of their creative works will undercut how they earn their living.

But with that said, it's silly to be believe this is in any way a new issue for authors. For example, in the 19th century pirating was a major problem, with American publishers being notorious for the practice. This is seen easily with Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was not only the best-selling novel of the 19th century but likely also the most pirated one.

In the 20th century more rigidly enforced and standarized copyright laws helped make pirated works more rare, but it still happened. As proof of this, witness this letter from SF author James Blish to William L. Hamling, editor of Imagination: Stories of Science Fiction. The letter was published in the September 1951 edition of the magazine and is part of my continuing effort to scan and highlight forgotten correspondence of interest to genre history.

The letter is transcribed below. Readers can also download the letter as a PDF.

And I'm curious about this well-known fan who assisted with this pirating. Wonder if anyone knows who this was?



Dear Bill :

While reading the June issue of IMAGINATION I ran across the reference to Spanish-language fantasy magazines in FANDORA'S BOX. To quote: "Even if you never see these magazines and never want to, its interesting to know that your favorite authors and stories are being enjoyed by fans who can't read English.”

To which, I'm afraid, it's necessary to add: For which privilege none of the authors represented are receiving one red cent. Evidently Miss Wolf is not aware of the fact that some of these Spanish magazines print by out and out piracy. The stories which go into them are selected, it seems, by an American, an extremely well known fan who apparently is proud of his participation in this kind of literary thievery.

There seems to be little that the pirated authors can do about this condition at the moment; however, you, as editor of an American science fiction magazine which will probably be pirated by Los Cuentos Fantasticos sooner or later should at least refrain from printing what amounts to tacit approval of the practice.

Incidentally, none of my own stories have ever proven popular enough to our friends South-of-the-border to be pirated in this fashion, so I have no personal axe to grind.

James Blish
171 Pelton Ave.
Staten Island 10, N. Y.

The literary piracy practices of the Мехісат таgazine you тепtion are no secret to your editor, Jim. While I edited FANTASTIC ADVENTURES at Ziff-Davis we found that not only were some of owr stories stolen by this questionable Mexican outfit, but they also used our covers, blocking out the logo. The matter was taken up with the attorneys of AS & FA, but it seemed as if there was no legal hold we could get on this magazine. As to our personal feelings on the mαtter you can imagine how angry we wereand are that a cheap fly-by-night Mexican firm would do such a dastardly thing under some technicality of a copyright being invalid insofar as they're cоncerned. And we'll go on record right now and say that in all likelihood we won't be able to stop them from pirating stories, illustrations and covers from IMAGINATION if they choose to do so, but if we ever meet anybody cоnnected with the project well have a few choice things to say.

As to the mention in FANDORA'S BOX, we don't censor fan news. We try and be as fair as possible even to a nauseating magazine like the one mentioned. Anything in science fiction is fan news and the fans have the right to know and express their views in any manner in the proper departments of this book. And along these lines wed like to mention one other thing. Mari Wolf's husband is Rog Phillips. And I believe Rog has had some of his work pirated by this same publication you mention. Which shows that Mari is reporting the news fairly, even though she may have an axe to grind personally.

As to an American having a hand in this literary piracy, we dont know anything about that … wlh