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Let the Grandchildren Take Care of Themselves

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, is considered the greatest humorist of 19th-century American literature.

Mark Twain, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly right, with cigar in hand, ca. 1907. J. Keppler, artist. 'Mark Twain,' America's best humorist, 1885

It is not commonly known to modern readers that Twain, famous for his razor-sharp wit and white suits, was also a stalwart defender of authors' rights. He lobbied hard for international copyright protection, which was finally enacted in 1891, and later gave colorful testimony at hearings before the U.S. Congress that led to the third general revision of the copyright law, in 1909.

During a congressional hearing in December 1906, Twain professed ignorance of technical aspects of the copyright bill as presented, but was in favor of perpetual copyright. He stated he would compromise on a copyright term of life of the author and 50 years thereafter:

"I like that bill, and I like that extension from the present limit of copyright life of 42 years to the author's life and 50 years after. I think that will satisfy any reasonable author, because it will take care of his children. Let the grandchildren take care of themselves. 'Sufficient unto the day.' That would satisfy me very well. That would take care of my daughters, and after that I am not particular. I shall then long have been out of this struggle and independent of it."

Interestingly, the law passed in 1909 provided for a term of only 28 years, plus a single renewal term of 28 years. The life-plus-50 term was not established in U.S. law until 1978.

At its annual meeting in New York City in 1957, the American Bar Association adopted a special resolution that "recognized the efforts of Mark Twain, who was so greatly responsible for the laws relating to copyrights which have meant so much to all free peoples throughout the world."

Readers of all ages are still captivated by his writings, especially about life on the Mississippi River. Detailed registration records for literary masterpieces, including "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," that were created during his most productive years, have been painstakingly handwritten onto 4-by-6-inch catalog cards and preserved in the General Index, the oldest segment of the historic Copyright Card Catalog. The General Index covers the period from 1870 through 1897.

The U.S. Copyright Office has been part of the Library of Congress since 1870. A brief history of copyright is on the office's Web site, which also provides information on searching the copyright status of a work, registering your works and the U.S. Copyright Law, which has changed several times since Twain's day.

Twain wrote one of his funniest letters to Gardiner Greene Hubbard, father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell. He addressed Hubbard on the envelope as the "Father-in-Law of the Telephone." In this letter Twain complains that "there is no night-service whatever ... And if you try to curse through the telephone, they shut you off. It is this ostentatious holiness that grovels me. Every day I go there to practice & always get shut off. And so what it amounts to is that I don't get any practice that can really be considered practice. Well, as you see, yourself, the inventor is responsible for all this. For your sake I wish I could think of some way to save him, but there doesn't appear to be any."

You can find other "Twain" items in American Memory, the Library's extraordinary Web site of more than 8.5 million items.


A. [Mark Twain, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly right, with cigar in hand], ca. 1907. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-112065 ; Call No.: NYWTS - BIOG--Twain, Mark--Author--Dead <item> [P&P]

B. J. Keppler, artist. "'Mark Twain,' America's best humorist," 1885. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZC4-4294 (color film copy transparency); Call No.: Illus. in AP101.P7 Case X [P&P]

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