PROVO — In 1840, it was a race against time.
The first one to print a copy of the Mormons' new scripture and register it at Stationer's Hall in London would control printing rights in all of Great Britain, meaning that whoever held the copyright to the Book of Mormon had the right to present it however they wanted to. They could print as many or as few as they wished. The copyright holder could also change the text at will, and the Mormons could do nothing to stop them.
The first American edition of the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, followed by another edition published in Kirtland, Ohio in 1837. But an American-printed edition could not get British copyright protection.
Edward L. Carter, an associate professor of communication at BYU, spoke at the Mormon Media Studies Symposium at BYU recently about the significance of the 1841 British copyright of the Book of Mormon. The danger of copyright infringement was not hypothetical to the fledgling LDS Church. The first excerpts of the Book of Mormon in the United States were published by church enemy, and only threats of legal action backed up by U.S. copyright law stopped any further use.
A recently found document was published last year in the Joseph Smith Papers about copyright protection for the Book of Mormon. In what he considered a revelation from God, Joseph Smith was commanded to "be diligent in securing the copyright of my work upon all the face of the earth of which is known by you ... That the faithful and the righteous may retain the temporal blessing, as well as the spiritual."
Although spiritual blessings may be of primary concern to a religious body, the law — and probably most publishers — was primarily concerned with the temporal nitty gritty issues of ownership, control and profit.
When the Statute of Anne was adopted by Parliament 300 years ago, it shifted the idea of protecting printers to the radical idea of instead protecting the rights of authors. It gave authors 14 years of copyright protection with an option to renew for another 14 years. A craft guild called the Stationers' Company was put in charge of recording authors' copyright registration. To register, an author had to deposit nine copies of their book at Stationers' Hall. Those books would then be distributed to the British Museum, Oxford, Cambridge, four universities in Scotland, Sion College in London and an Edinburgh library.
The copies requirement was later reduced to one, and the copyright term extended to the life of the author or 28 years, whichever was longer.
LDS Church apostles Brigham Young (later President of the LDS Church) and Heber C. Kimball and Parley P. Pratt were serving a mission in Great Britain in 1840 and were charged with getting the copyright "in the name of Joseph Smith." To do this, they first needed the books.
Liverpool printer John Tompkins agreed in June 1840 to print five thousand copies at the cost of 210 pounds — a price that did not include the paper or binding. Only 4,050 books were printed and delivered to the bindery in Jan. 1841.
On Feb. 8, 1841, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and Parley P. Pratt brought five copies of the Book of Mormon to Stationers' Hall in London on behalf of Joseph Smith. The clerk, George Greenhill, wrote that it was a translated work "By Joseph Smith, Jun. — First European from the Second American Edition — Received Five Copies."
By this time, five copies were not required, but legislation was pending requiring five books to register, so the LDS Church was playing it safe.
It had won the race.
"We know it is not about financial gain," Carter said. "It's a means to accomplish the end of achieving the Lord's work to disseminate the truth. … I think it also means that Mormonism will go in through the front door. The committee in Great Britain obtained the copyright in as legal and as upfront a manner as possible."
This small act of copyrighting the Book of Mormon was significant, Carter wrote in a longer version of his presentation. "It was the copyright registration that allowed leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Great Britain to ensure the preservation of their exclusive right to control publication and distribution of the text."