Friday, April 21, 2017

R - J.R. Robertson, Toronto's First Literary Pirate

John Ross Robertson was born in Toronto in 1841. As a child he collected pictures and historical memorabilia (so he was a nerd, basically), and in high school he started his own newspaper, which may have been the first school newspaper of its kind in Canada. He got into trouble with the school administration for printing negative pieces about them, and had to close and rename his paper several times. To be fair to Robertson, he was actually only chastising the school for their movie-villain-style schemes, like trying to tear down the school playground (which Robertson stopped).

After leaving school Robertson started his own print and publishing businesses as well as founded several papers and magazines. By 1865 he was city editor for the Globe, one of Toronto's (and the country's) top papers, which continues to this day as the Globe and Mail. He won numerous awards for journalism and was credited for "introducing to the paper the practice of writing crisp, short paragraphs about a multiplicity of local happenings, rather than sermon-like and wordy essays about outstanding events."

You know, basically the opposite of the way I write.

Preferring to be in charge, Robertson jumped ship just a year later to start his own paper, the Evening Telegraph (later the Evening Telegram). The Telegraph was characterized as news as entertainment, with colourful words, flashy ads, low price and catering to the "average, lower class family" with lowbrow, trashy stories. It was basically a tabloid, and also continues today in its spiritual successor, the Toronto Sun.

Which is also not much better than a tabloid.

The paper was hugely successful, and Robertson became one of Canada's first press barons. Just like today, the people who control the media control the masses, and so JR Robertson was a powerful, influential figure. He used this power to dabble in new enterprises, like rampant literary piracy.

With the rise of popular fiction, and since JRR owned his own printing presses, it was only natural that he would try his hand at book publishing. But instead of finding his own authors and new manuscripts, he just stole works that were already popular in the U.S. or Britain and sold them in Canada without the author or publisher's permission. Due to the lack of international copyright laws, Robertson made a fortune shamelessly reprinting these works. His "Robertson Cheap Editions" (seriously, that was the name) sold for 3 to 50 cents a copy, a fraction of the price of the legitimate volumes. Between 1877 and the early 1890s, it is estimated that Robertson sold up to 2 million copies of as many as 350 titles. He even serialized the works in the Telegram.

The 19th-century equivalent of Torrenting an ePub file.

Of course, what he was doing wasn't technically illegal, but it made him unpopular in certain circles, especially among British copyright lawyers. They argued that as a dominion of Great Britain, Canada should follow their copyright laws, which of course Canadians balked against. Prime Minister John Sparrow Thompson (no relation to Captain Jack Sparrow) appointed Robertson as lead to sort out the copyright laws and actually sent him to London to negotiate with the British, which spelled an end to the Robertson Cheap Editions. I imagine it would have been hard for Robertson to strike any kind of deal with the British while he was ripping them off at the same time.


Like many rich industrialist of his era, JR Robertson was a fascinating and controversial figure. I only touched on a fraction of his life today. If you want to know more, check out:


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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