A curious controversy occurred in 1778 between Mr. Mason, executor of Thomas Gray the poet, and Mr. Murray [senior], who had published a "Poetical Miscellany," in which were quoted fifty lines from three passages in Gray's works. Mr. Mason commenced an action against him in the Court of Chancery for printing these lines, as being his property. Mr. Murray published a pamphlet, entitled "A Letter to W. Mason, A.M., Precentor of York, concerning his edition of Mr. Gray's Poems, and the Practices of Booksellers. By a Bookseller." The pamphlet was signed "J. Murray, 32, Fleet Street." The defence was far more vigorous than the attack, and showed Mr. Murray to advantage as an author. He hit straight, and he hit home. Amongst other things, he retorted upon Mr. Mason that he had himself purloined from a publication which was Murray's actual property, protected by copyright, more lines than Mr. Murray had extracted from the Poems of Gray. This passage Mason had inserted, without permission in his "Memoirs of Gray": "What trick, what device, what starting-hole cans't thou now find out, to hide thee from this open and apparent shame?"
Take a few passages from the Letter:—
"Mr. Gray, whose name as a poet stands deservedly high, had in his lifetime, at first, published his poems as he wrote them, in detached pieces. He received for these no money nor hire. He formally assigned them to no bookseller. His reward was public approbation. And a disinterested pride 'led him of all other things to despise the idea of being an author professed' (Mason's 'Memoirs of Mr. Gray') — that is, like his worthy executor, a mercenary one. Mr. Gray, then, like Shakespeare, made a present of his poems to the public. And not making them a property himself, never dreamt that another person was to erect them into a literary estate, to the exclusion of his heirs...
"If Mr. Mason prevails in his suit, he shuts the door at once against extracts of all kinds from new publications. If fifty lines are property, one line is property. And whether I find it in a Magazine, Review, or Newspaper, I claim it, and can prosecute for damages. Will you deny that extracts inserted in these publications, so far from injuring authors, occasion their works to be more known, and consequently to be more called for? But besides that the law is unacquainted with the distinction, I contend that the reverse of this position is the truth. For I insist that extracts from new books give sale and currency to periodical publications, without which the latter would instantly perish.
"So far from intending to violate Mr. Mason's property, I took some pains to guard against it. Different booksellers, who pretended to no exclusive right in the book, had printed the Poems in question before me. I naturally thought that they would not interfere with Mason's literary property. And from one of their copies did I print my edition, to avoid all cause of controversy or complaint... And could I believe that a man, possessed of any degree of candour or generosity, would have proceeded to use legal violence against me in the first instance, after being made acquainted with these particulars of my conduct?"
This pamphlet was only published after Mr. Mason had commenced legal proceedings. When Mr. Murray received notice of them, he at once called upon Mr. Mason to explain the circumstances under which he had published the extracts, and requested him to name the terms on which he would be satisfied. Mr. Mason nevertheless proceeded with his action, and obtained an Injunction to stop the sale of the book of extracts, to the great annoyance of the publisher as well as the public.
What was thought of the matter at the time may be inferred from a conversation which occurred at the house of Mr. Dilly, the publisher, in the presence of Dr. Johnson, Mrs. Knowles "the ingenious Quaker lady," Miss Seward, the Rev. Dr. Mayo, and the Rev. Mr. Beresford. We take the passage from Boswell's "Life":—
"Somebody mentioned the Rev. Mr. Mason's prosecution of Mr. Murray, the bookseller, for having inserted in a collection only fifty lines of Gray's Poems, of which Mr. Mason had still the exclusive property, under the Statute of Queen Anne; and that Mr. Mason had persevered, notwithstanding his being requested to name his own terms of compensation. Johnson signified his displeasure at Mr. Mason's conduct very strongly; but added, by way of showing that he was not surprised at it, 'Mason's a Whig.' Mrs. Knowles (not hearing distinctly): 'What! a prig, Sir?' Johnson: 'Worse, Madam; a Whig! But he is both!'"