Dal holiday honours copyright thief, few care

Students and faculty reflect on the source of the wealth behind George Munro's philanthropy

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An illustration of George Munro from the Dalhousie University Press published A. J. Crockett's book George Munro, "The Publisher" in 1957. Photo: Afton Aikens.

Dalhousie students celebrated an annual holiday on Friday known as Munro Day, but few actually know the dark history of the man behind the infamous day.

Retired Dalhousie University history professor P.B. Waite wrote a historical account of Munro in a 1994 book titled "The Lives of Dalhousie University," which details the life of the famous philanthropist who kept Dalhousie from going bankrupt.

Munro was born near Pictou, N.S., in 1825 and at the age of 31 he moved to New York and began publishing The Seaside Library, which essentially profited off of the works of British authors by reprinting their literature without paying royalties to them.

This is essentially how Munro amassed his fortune - on the backs of the work of famous literary figures on the other side of the world.

This was during a time when the literary world was lacking in international copyright laws, yet the authors whose work he reprinted included Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and Emily Brontë.

As Munro's fortune grew he decided to give something back to the Halifax community by investing in Dalhousie University as it sat on the edge of bankruptcy.

"Desperate is not too strong a word for Dalhousie's financial condition," Waite writes. "Talk of closing Dalhousie down was heard on every side."

In all, Munro donated $333,000 to keep the dwindling university afloat, which is the equivalent of about $8 million today.

The question remains, should we remember this man as a great philanthropist and saviour of Dalhousie, or as a man whose shady business practices built this university on a foundation of copyright thievery?

"Munro's disregard of copyright was not unusual in that period and a good present-day analogy is the approach that Google is currently taking in placing books online," says former Dalhousie history professor and author Judith Fingard.

"While I would not defend the practice of ignoring copyright, especially when it impacts authors trying to make a living from their publications, we can counterbalance the inappropriate ethics on Munro's part with the benefits of inexpensive books and his philanthropy."

Dalhousie students are generally uninterested in the history behind the holiday, but when pressed, opinions tend to fall on both sides of the argument.

"It's troubling, but I'm easily bribed with a day off," says third-year Dalhousie arts student Dustin Fitch. "It bothers me, but not to the point of actually doing anything about it."

"I think it's very telling of the university," says third-year Dalhousie gender studies student Eva Burrill.

"It starts with a thief, and because of all the poor students struggling to pay tuition, it also ends with thieves."

Some students feel as though Munro has been misrepresented as a hero of the university and that his unethical publishing practices leave a stain on Dalhousie.

"It's dirty money," says first-year Dalhousie arts student Lindsay MacDonald.

"It's horrible, I feel guilty about the way the money is acquired, and the reasoning behind why we got it makes me feel bad."

Yet others take a more realistic approach, saying the lack of international copyright laws proved that Munro did no wrong, and that he was merely an opportunist who took advantage of an unstructured system.

"There's no way I can pass criticism on a man who kept this university alive," says second-year Dalhousie science student Fabian Frangipane.

"Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do."

Fingard says today's standards are undoubtably different from those in Munro's time. 

"Ethics in business is a more recent concept and I would wager that no capitalist is blameless when it comes to questionable business practices then or now," says Fingard.

"In fact, I am sure Munro would have been shocked by the charge that he was breaking the law."

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