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We do not wish to overgeneralize from the particulars made known in this one case. They concern one writer, one publisher, and a period of just over a decade. By the standard of the contracts preserved in British Library Add. MS. 38,728 for the 1730s and 1740s, Vaillant's prices seem decidedly generous. Taking into account Murphy's relatively junior status as a playwright, the prices seem even more lavish, particularly for afterpieces. John Watts (publisher of most of the plays for which contracts are known in the earlier period) rarely paid more than £50 for a mainpiece and often bought afterpieces for 5 guineas or even less. Until more facts have been discovered for the post-1750 period, the representativeness of these prices and the commoness of outright sale of copyright of plays must remain questionable. Likewise we simply do not know how often playwrights chose to have plays published at their own risk in the 1760s, what they were charged by their printers, or what the bottom line looked like. The prices given for copyright do not seem out of line with those given by Dodsley at about the same time.[26]

Surveying the practices described in Murphy v. Vaillant, we are struck by two points in particular: the casualness with which author and publisher


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did their business, and the extent to which Vaillant was prepared to loan Murphy money without charging him interest. Up to February 1760 Murphy and Vaillant operated a bit sloppily (formalizing contracts long after publication, for example), but they struck bargains, eventually reduced them to writing before witnesses, and paid over the money due. When they balanced their books on 7 February 1760 they were all square with little room for difference of opinion. (Murphy tried to obscure this settlement, but Vaillant was able to prove conclusively that all transactions prior to this date were settled and hence irrelevant to the lawsuit.) After that, they depended on oral agreements not made before witnesses, even when they drastically changed the terms on which they were doing business. They should unquestionably have made a written agreement about No One's Enemy but his Own and All in the Wrong. Their failure to set clear terms for Belisarius is even stranger.

Between 26 February 1760 (when their "new Account was opened") and 23 December 1767 (when Vaillant presented Murphy with a bill for £192 5s 10d) Murphy collected substantial sums from Vaillant. Vaillant held receipts and notes of hand amounting to £405 1s 7d, to which he added £16 6s 6d "Book debt" and £58 5s 9d for printing the two plays at Murphy's risk for a total of £479 12s 10d [recte 13s 10d]. He calculated what he owed Murphy for this period as £52 10s for the alteration of The Way to Keep Him, £105 for All in the Wrong, £42 for The Old Maid; £6 13s for 38 copies sold of the Gray's Inn Journal at 3/6 each, £25 19s 9d for 722 copies of What we must all come to, £40 7s, for 805 copes of No One's Enemy but his Own, and £21 allowed for Belisarius—"amounting in the whole to the sum of" £293 9s 9d. The difference, £186 3s 1d, reflects loans and cash advances on unsold books. Vaillant says apropos of his obtaining and printing the revised text of The Upholsterer that Murphy gave him "the said Additions and Alterations . . . partly moved by this Defendants Civilities to him & not requiring Interest from him for Money advanced to him." We would guess that Vaillant regarded Murphy as a promising writer worth some coddling and concessions, and that he therefore allowed the playwright to draw money he had not yet earned. When Murphy showed clear signs of withdrawing from full-time playwriting, Vaillant not unnaturally totted up his accounts, discovered that he was owed upwards of £200, and tried to collect. Murphy put him off for fully six years before the claim went to the Court of Common Pleas—and then tried to block execution of the judgment of that court by filing a cross-bill in Exchequer.

More significant than the specifics of the case are the larger issues of authorship and remuneration. A playwright could sell his or her text and collect cash up front, but the transaction effectively concluded his interest in his book. In theory he would regain copyright after fourteen years, but relatively few plays had significant sales fifteen years after they came out. The author could choose to have the work printed at his or her own risk, but what was to prevent the printer from cheating the author blind? Costs might be padded. Worse, extra copies might be manufactured and sales concealed.


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How would the author know? Murphy demanded access to Vaillant's account books—but businesses have been known to keep more than one set of books. And whatever the accounts might show, a steep price to a printer or a binder or a supplier of goods can conceal a cash kickback to the proprietor of the business.

Consider the playwright's options. Should the publication agreement be negotiated before or after the premiere? Success might raise the price, but failure would probably lower it. Really substantial profits from playwriting required multiple benefits from a mainpiece, but a mainpiece that died in three nights or so would not be easy to sell to a publisher. Conventional wisdom among twentieth-century commentators holds that eighteenth- century playwrights were exploited and bilked by publishers who acquired rights to plays for flat fees and then pocketed all the profits. There are certainly cases on record in which the publisher sold enormous numbers of copies of a text he had acquired for a relative pittance. Bernard Lintot, for example, bought Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer for £16 2s 6d and The Beaux Stratagem for £30.[27] There is another side to this coin, however. The playwright might get a substantial amount of much-needed cash in a lump sum up front, leaving all risk to the publisher. Unquestionably, the only way for a playwright to make a lot of money from publication was to accept risk and have the book printed "for the Author." John Gay did this with Polly in 1729, capitalizing on a subscription and the notoriety of the playhouse ban.[28] One of the more interesting implications of Murphy v. Vaillant, however, is that for an ordinary play, outright sale of the copy might well have proved a better deal for the author than has generally been supposed.[29]