The phenomenon of Belgian counterfeiting – that is, the printing in that country of unauthorized editions of works by French authors, at the same time or even in advance of the first Parisian editions – began after 1815 and exploded around 1830. At the time the copyright laws were enforced only nationally: what was published in one country became public domain in others. There was therefore nothing illegal in reprinting, translating, organizing, adapting, truncating, plagiarizing foreign works. The word counterfeiting, which suggests the presence of a fraudulent action, is therefore not entirely appropriate; and it is not so also because it carries within itself some pejorative nuances of meaning that do not correspond to the quality of the editions. On the contrary: favored by the absence of commissions to the authors and by the reduced manufacturing costs, a high level production was one of the main strengths of the “forgers”. The works were mostly printed in smaller formats: in-16 and in-18 or in-18 small, on excellent quality paper. The typesetting was not neglected: the texts were adapted to the smaller formats with a great mastery in the art of composing them on the page.
Often, however, it happened that the Belgians directly pirated the editions in the printing phase and that, to overcome the French publishers, they did not hesitate to bribe the printers in the workshops, to obtain the correct sheets as they went to the press; titles of French authors appeared in Brussels before the copyright holder had put them up for sale in Paris. In these cases the action could only be considered fraudulent, guilty and hateful; an unfair enterprise that caused damage to French publishing, making it difficult to expand and exploiting its intellectual work and the production process. In a first phase, the Belgian publishers limited themselves to selling the editions only locally (between 1820 and 1828 all the Belgian typography put into circulation amounted to six to seven million sheets and its exports remained insignificant), but after the 1830 production took off. Formidable companies were formed, with large capital, to exploit, on a large scale, the counterfeiting of French books: Louis Hauman & C.ie, Méline, Cans & C.ie, Adolphe Wahlen & C.ie, and others. New outlets were established and full of volumes packages were shipped daily across Europe and North America. The investigation into book counterfeiting in Belgium, conducted by the Société des Gens de Lettres of Paris, estimated that in 1838 the Belgian printer had printed 32 million sheets and published over 650,000 volumes. Nine tenths of the works borrowed from the various European literatures were French. This great production led the publishing companies to ruthless competition that led to the collapse of prices. In 1841 Jamar & C.ie – a small marginal Belgian publisher – published the same work for 1.40 francs that Balzac was selling in Paris for 7.50 francs and which large companies were selling in Brussels for 3 francs.
It is easy to understand the irritation of the transalpine industry. Some publishers, including Hetzel, tried in vain a counter-offensive by setting up a counter of French booksellers in Brussels, to sell their books at discounted prices and thus “reduce” the advantage of counterfeit material; but it was necessary to wait for the promulgation of an international recognition of the principle of literary property to force Belgium, after much hesitation, to sign a treaty with France that abolished the counterfeiting of books: signed in 1852, the treaty was applied only from 1854.
What else to add to conclude this brief report? That perhaps, despite their many abuses, the Belgian publishers must be credited with having introduced French literature in countries, spheres and social classes that had not been reached until then and thus contributed to its spread throughout the world.
Here are some counterfeit books printed in Belgium: