How Copyright Laws Killed Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy’s intellectual journey brought him to a realization that works of art and ideas should not be privately owned. Tolstoy didn’t want to make anybody believe what he did. All he wanted was to share his own work with the world.

In the last three decades of the writer’s long life, he was driven by a single powerful wish. Tolstoy wanted to ensure that after his death, everybody who wanted to read his books could do so for free. He felt that most of the people in tsarist Russia who really needed to have access to his ideas might be too poor to buy the books. Time and again, Tolstoy expressed his wish to have the entirety of his creative production made available to the world. He published articles and official statements to this effect, he begged his family members and friends to respect his wishes and make this possible, he wrote several wills making this desire of his very explicit, and he filled several volumes of his diaries with worries as to whether he would be able to make the gift of his art to the world.

The copyright laws of the Russian Empire, however, made Tolstoy’s dream impossible. There was simply no provision among them that would allow people to put the fruits of their intellectual and creative labor into open access. Tolstoy’s lawyers told the writer that only an individual or a group of specific individuals could inherit his works.

The writer’s family and friends had no respect for Tolstoy’s ideas. Or they didn’t have enough of it to renounce the huge profits that ownership of the rights to his collected works would bring. Tolstoy spent the last years of his life feeling torn apart by his relatives and acquaintances who bickered and schemed for the right to inherit his work. At that point, Tolstoy felt horrified by the idea of possessing any private property. Thirty years before he died, he transferred all of his money and land to his wife and children. However, the idea that readers would be deprived of reading his books so that his dissolute and useless sons would be able to booze their way into the grave was intolerable to the writer. In vain did he consult lawyers and beg the authorities to allow him to dispose of his creative legacy the way he wanted to.

Eventually, the screaming matches between the hopeful heirs became so impossible for the ailing old man to stand that Tolstoy ran away from home. He felt that even one more day of listening to endless arguments about copyright laws and inheritances would drive him mad. All the writer wanted was to dedicate the last months of his life to peaceful contemplation of his journey towards God. This wasn’t meant to be. Ten days after running away from home, Tolstoy died.

The bickering over the rights to his work continued for decades after that.

8 thoughts on “How Copyright Laws Killed Leo Tolstoy

  1. “The copyright laws of the Russian Empire, however, made Tolstoy’s dream impossible. There was simply no provision among them that would allow people to put the fruits of their intellectual and creative labor into open access.”

    That’s even more ridiculous, the author himself cannot waive of his own copyright! WTF?

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    1. And this was so important to him, too. This was the core of the philosophy he created and for which he was venerated across the world. So the point is that the author doesn’t even own his own work. There is a higher authority over his artistic creation. And that authority is copyright.

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  2. This happens to be the first post on your blog I read, I can across the link while browsing ‘Tolstoy’s stance on copyright’ and ‘anti-copyright movements’. I recently read that films, books and music records are literally rotting in some arhcives of the world. No one’s reselling them because they do not know who the owner is and fear legal action. This is Sad!! It’s a loss to whole humanity!!

    Please tell me more about this (Tolstoy on copyright) if possible.


    https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.js

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