Copyright, Its History and its Law-Richard Rogers Bowker 1912

The early history of copyright

In classic times

Our traditions of the blind Homer, singing his Iliad in the multitudinous places of his protean nativity, do not vouchsafe us any information as to the status of authors in his day. There seems indeed to be no indication of author’s rights or literary property in Greek or earlier literatures. But there is mention in Roman literature of the sale of playright by the dramatic authors, as Terence; and Rome had booksellers who sold copies of poems written out by slaves, and who seem to have been protected by some kind of “courtesy of the trade,” since Martial names certain booksellers who had specific poems of his for sale. Horace complains that the Sosius brothers, his publishers, got gold while he got only fame — but this may have been a clcissic “author’s grumble.” Cicero in his letters indicates that there was some notion of literary property, and it is prob- able that some kind of payment was made to authors.

Roman law

The Roman jurist Gaius, probably of the second century, held that where an artist had painted upon a tabula, his was the superior right. And this opinion was adopted by Tribonian, chief editor of the code of Justinian, in the sixth century, and was applied in a modern question in respect to John Leech’s drawings upon wood.

Monastic copyists

In the early Christian centuries, the monasteries became the seats of learning, and the scriptorium or writing room, in connection with the librarium or armarium, — the armory in which the weapons of the faith were kept, — was the work-shop of the monkish copyists, sometimes working as a publishing staff under the direction of the librarius or armarius as chief scribe. The first record of a copyright case is that of Finnian v. Columba in St. Columba and Finnian, chronicled by Adamnan fifty years later and cited by Montalem-bert in “The monks of the West.” St. Columba, in his pre-saintly days, surreptitiously made a copy of a psalter in possession of his teacher Finnian, and the copy was reclaimed, so the tradition relates, under the decision of King Dermott, in the Halls of Tara: “To every cow her calf.” The authenticity of the tradition is questioned by other writers, but the phrase gives the pith of the common law doctrine of literary property and indicates that in those early centuries there was a sense of copyright. Monks from other monasteries came to a noted scriptorium where a specially authentic or valuable manuscript could be copied, and the privilege of copying some-times became the basis of an exchange of copies or of a commercial charge. Finally different texts of the same work were compared to obtain a certain or standard text, and the multiplication of such copies became the basis of a publishing and bookselling trade, in secular as well as sacerdotal hands, the de-velopment of which is traced in detail by George Haven Putnam in “Books and their makers in the Middle Ages.”

This development is illustrated in the statutes

University protection of 1223 of the University of Paris, providing that the “booksellers of the University” should produce duplicate copies of the texts authorized for the use of the University, and there is indication that payment was made by the University to scholars for the anno- tation and proof-reading of such texts. In fact, there existed in France in those days a kind of guild of libraires jurés or legalized booksellers, under regula-tion of the University, as a body of publishers and writers having jurisdiction over the copying and censorship of manuscripts. “Letters of patent” of Charles V, 1368, specified fourteen libraires and eleven écrivains as registered in Paris, and four chief libraires had jurisdiction over the calling of the librarius and the stationarius. The certificate of the correctness of a copy, and perhaps of the right to copy or sell it, may be considered the primitive form of copyright certificate.

Invention of printing

The invention of printing, prior to 1450, made pro-printing tection of literary property a question of rapidly in- creasing importance. The new art raised, of course, many new questions wherever the guardians of the law were set to their chronic task of applying old ideas of right to new conditions. The earliest copy- right certificate, if it may be so called, in a printed book was that in the re-issue of the tractate of Peter Nigrus printed in 1475, at Esslingen, in which the Bishop of Ratisbon certified the correctness of the copy and his approval. At first “privileges” were granted chiefly to printers, for the reproduction of classic or patristic works, but possibly in some cases as the representatives of living writers ; and there are early instances of direct grants to authors, the earliest known being in 1486 in Venice to Sabellico.

In Germany

In Germany, the cradle of the art of printing, whence come the earliest incunabula or cradle-books, printing privileges were developed some decades later than in Italy. Koberger, the early Nuremberg printer, whose imprint dates back to 1 473 , relied rather on the “courtesy of the trade,” and indeed made an agreement in 1495 with Kessler of Basel to respect each other’s rights. Yet a suit brought in 1480 by Schöffer, who with Fust had established the first publishing and bookselling business, brought in con-Germany nection with Fust’s heirs against Inkus of Frankfort for the infringement of property rights in certain books, and the issue of a preliminary injunction by a court at Basel, indicated some definite legal status.

The first recorded privilege in Germany was issued by the imperial Aulic Council in 150 1, to the Rhenish Celtic Sodalitas for the printing of dramas of the nun-poet, Hroswitha, who had been dead for 600 years, as prepared by Celtes of Nuremberg. The imperial privilege covered only the imperial domain, and Celtes in the same year obtained a similar privi-lege from the magistracy of Frankfort, then the seat of the book-fair, organized there about 1500, after- wards superseded by that at Leipzig. Later, imperial privileges were issued by the Imperial Chancellor in the nEmie of the Emperor, as one in 15 10 to the printer Johann Schott of the “Lectura aurea.” In 1512 Maximilian I granted to the historiographer Johann Stab in Lintz a privilege covering “all works” which he “might cause to be printed,” under which he issued licenses on particular books for ten years or less. This grant, however, some authorities consider not a privilege or copyright, but an author-ization to license, possibly similar to that which had been granted in 1455 by Frederick III and confirmed later by Maximilian I to Dr. Jacob Ossler at Stras-burg, perhaps the earliest centre of printing and bookselling, as imperial supervisor of literature and superintendent of printing. In 1512 also, copies or imitations or engravings by Albert Diirer, with forged signature, were ordered confiscated by the magistrates of Nuremberg, though perhaps on grounds of fraud rather than of copyright. But in 1528 Diirer’s widow obtained from the Nuremberg authorities exclusive privilege for his works, and in Germanythat year the magistrates went so far in protecting Dürer’s “Proportion ” as to restrain another work of the same title and subject, presumably though mis-takenly inferred to be an adaptation or imitation, until after the completion and sale of the original work. In 1532 reëngravings of some of Dürer’s works were restrained, and when a Latin edition of his “Perspective,” printed in Paris, found its way to Nuremberg, the magistrates called the booksellers together, warned them against keeping or selling the unauthorized edition, and sent letters to the magis-tracy of Strasburg, Frankfort, Leipzig and Antwerp, requesting similar action. Luther in his reforming zeal was the first protestant against authors’ wrongs, and in a letter of 1528 complained that “there are many now busying themselves with the spoiling of books through misprinting them,” and pleaded for legislation to protect literary producers. In 1531 the city council of Basel enjoined all booksellers from reprinting the books of each other for three years from publication under penalty of one hundred gulden, which illustrates the nature of local legislation, priv-ileging printers as well as other guilds within a city. The protection was usually for short terms and some- times covered the subject as well as the book, as indi-cated in the Dürer case.

The coördinate jurisdiction of imperial and local authority continued into the seventeenth century, and besides a special protection of official publications, including church texts and school books, there developed a differentiation between privileged books and protected authors. The imperial city of Frank-fort in 1660 passed an ordinance for the protection of “bücher” and “autores,” and an imperial patent of 1685 made the curious distinction between “priv-ileged” and “unprivileged” works, which Pütter, Germanyreputed the German apostle of the modern theory of property in literary productions, writing in 1764, explains as meaning respectively “non-individual” and “individual” (eigenthümlich) works, the former those issued under printers’ privileges, the latter the works of contemporary authors, copyrightable in our modern sense. At the close of the seventeenth century, the book-fair at Leipzig began to assume dominating importance, and the privileges from the Commission of the Elector of Saxony became more authoritative, perhaps, than the imperial privileges issued from Frankfort.

In Italy: Venice

Venice, among whose chief glories were to be the master printers Aldus, was the first and foremost of the Italian states to encourage the new art. The first privilege granted by her Senate, in 1469, indeed antedated the first in Germany by thirty-two years, the first in France by thirty-four years, and the first in England by forty-nine years. This was to John of Speyer, a German printer, for a monopoly for printing in Venice for five years, with prohibition of importation of works printed elsewhere, which he did not live to enjoy. The first known author’s copyright was granted September 1, 1486, to Antonio Sabellico, historian to the Republic, of the sole right to publish or authorize the publication of his “Decade of Venetian affairs,” not limited in time, with a penalty of five hundred ducats for infringement. In 1491 the Senate gave to the publicist Peter of Ravenna and the publisher of his choice the sole right, without mention of term, to print and sell his “Phoenix,” usually cited as the first instance of copyright. In 1493 one Barbaro was granted a privilege for ten years in the work of his deceased brother, and In the same year an editor’s copyright was granted to Joannes Nigro for his edition of “Haliabas,” his applicationItalybeing accompanied by a certificate from learned doctors of Padua of its value for the community, and a publisher’s copyright to Benaliis on Giustiniani’s “Origin of the city of Venice,” both apparently without term. In 1494 a privilege to Codeca contained the condition of fair price, and another privilege required publication within a year or at the rate of a folio a day. In 1496 Aldus himself was given the privilege for twenty years of printing any Greek texts, and in 1501, another for ten years of printing in cursive or italic characters, an invention of his own modeled on the handwriting of Boccaccio, a quasi patent right; and rights for other languages were granted to other printers.

From 1505 renewals were granted for good cause, as in 1508 to Crasso for his edition of the works of Polifilo, because the wars had prevented due return. The privilege dated sometimes from application, sometimes from publication, and varied in term from one year up, averaging perhaps ten years at the beginning and twenty years toward the close of the sixteenth century. Many of the privileges were conditioned on printing within Venice. Copyright to authors became frequent, as in 1515 on his “Orlando” for his lifetime, to Ariosto, on whose poems an extra term for ten years was granted, in 1535, to his heirs. In 1521 Castellazzo obtained a copyright for his engravings illustrating the Pentateuch and for others which he had in plan; and many musical works were also copyrighted.

It will be seen that before or early in the sixteenth century most of the copyright conditions of later legislation, even in the American code of 1909, had been prophesied in Venice. But the privileges had become so complicated and perplexing that in 1517 the Venetian Senate abolished all printing privilegesItaly previously granted and decreed that privileges should thereafter be granted only by two-thirds vote and for a new work (opus novum) “never published before,” or works hitherto unprivileged. This attempt at reform proved inadequate and indefinite, and in 1533 the first real copyright code was decreed, under which printing was required within Venice, and publication within a year — later modified for larger works to a folio a day. No publisher could apply twice for the same copyright, and a maximum price was fixed from an advance copy by the Bureau of Arts and Industries. Under the restriction of competition, Venetian printers, once the best in the world, fell into “the ruinous and disgraceful practice,” according to a decree of 1537, “for the sake of gain” of using “vile paper that would not hold the ink” or permit marginal notes; and the use of good paper that could be written upon without blotting was required, except for works riced under 10 soldi, on penalty of forfeiture of copyright and a fine of 100 ducats. Under the earlier privileges publishers had printed books without consent of the authors or against their will, but in 1545 it was decreed that no copyright should issue unless documentary evidence of the consent of the author or his representatives had been submitted to the Rifformatori, the commission from the University of Padua, appointed the year before as censors upon non-theological works, not covered by the ecclesiastical censors.

A decree in 1548 established a guild of printers and publishers, antedating the charter granted by Queen Mary to the Stationers’ Company in London, though later than the organization of the book-fair of Frankfort and of the libraires jurés in France; and its regulations, aiding the censorship, incidentally defined literary property and protected copyrights. ItalyAbout 1566 there was a provision that works should be registered before publication without charge, and a complete registry of published works was kept in Venice. In 1569 as many as 117 copyright entries were made in Venice, and so few, after the plague years, as seven in 1599. Only two applications are recorded as refused by the Senate. The one recorded instance of punishment for piracy was that on the work of Pappa Alesio of Corfu, wherein the infringer was fined 200 ducats, besides ten ducats for each unauthorized copy printed, and was forbidden to print for ten years.

About 1600 the exodus of printers from Venice was checked by legislation, and in 1603 an elaborate decree provided copyright for twenty years on books first published in Venice, for ten years on books first published in Italy but registered in Venice, or on books not printed in Venice within the previous twenty years, and for five years on books not printed within ten years previous, and also a fine of twenty-five ducats for the false use of “Venetia” in the imprint. Later, as is evidenced by complaints in 1671, deposit copies were required for the libraries of St. Mark and of Padua. By the close of the seventeenth century the provisions for copyright in Venice had become so complicated, according to Putnam, following Brown’s historical study of ” The Venetian printing press,” as to require the following processes, most of them involving a fee: “testamur from the ducal secretary; certificate from the Rifformatori of the University of Padua; imprimatur from the Chiefs of the Ten; revision by the Superintendent of the Press; revision by the public proof-reader; collation of the original text with the text as printed, by the secretary to the Rifformatori; certificate from the librarian of St. Mark that a copy had been deposited in the library; examination by experts appointed by the Proveditori to establish the market price of the book.”


Florence was second only to Venice in the production of books and the protection of authors, and the records of Florentine printing show that in the six- teenth century international privileges were sought and obtained. Thus the printer of a Florentine edition of the Pandects, in 1553, obtained privileges also in Spain, France and the two Sicilies, possibly through a Papal grant.

Control by the Church

By 1515. under Leo X, patron of art and letters. Control by the Holy See had asserted its jurisdiction over copyrights and privileges, not only in its own territory, but throughout Italy and Germany, and elsewhere, under pain of spiritual punishments. Fra Felice of Prato, a converted Jew, had obtained from the Pope a privilege for certain Hebrew works valid throughout all Europe, the denial or infringement of which was punishable by excommunication; but he took the precaution to obtain a privilege also from the Venetian authorities. There is other evidence of a compromise policy involving approval from the Church before a secular privilege was granted, especially of theological works. Throughout Catholic countries the index expurgatorius banned for the most part the printing of forbidden books; and this made Holland later the chief centre of printing, since the placing of a work in the index invited prompt reprint by Dutch publishers. It was perhaps a survival of a requirement for deposit of such books that Holland so long remained the only nation in Europe conditioning copyright on deposit of a copy printed within the country.

In France

In France, after the invention of printing, the functions of the libraires jurés, under the authority given by the King through the University of Paris, naturally Francecame to include books, and this relation was continued until the Revolution of 1789. Copyrights throughout this period seem to have been in perpetuity. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, in the times of Louis XII, “letters of the King” forbade book-sellers, printers and other persons to “introduce foreign impressions” of the books to which such letters were appended. They were usually issued to printers. In 1537, under Francis I, a work had first to secure “the King’s approval given through the royal librarian,” a copy must be deposited in the library of the royal chateau of Blois, and the selling of foreign works was permitted only after approval as worthy of a place in the royal library, — but for these last the library was to pay the usual price. In 1556 a general ordinance of Henry II defined literary property, and publication of condemned books was declared treason. In 1566 the “Ordinance de Moulins” of Charles IX made further definition; and letters patent of Henry III, in 1576, referred back to these earlier ordinances. Infringement of such privileges was punished with especial severity in France, for, as quoted by Lowndes, such conduct was thought “worse than to enter a neighbor’s house and steal his goods: for negligence might be imputed to him for permitting the thief to enter: but in the case of piracy of copyright, it was stealing a thing confided to the public honor.” Louis XIV in 1682 visited it with corporal punishment, and for a second offence decreed in 1686 also that the offender should be forever disabled from exercising his trade of bookseller or printer.

Copyrights continued in perpetuity until all royal privileges were abolished in 1789 by the National Assembly, after which in July, 1793, a general copyright law was passed, granting copyright to an author for his life and to his heirs for ten years thereafter. In EnglandIn England, a Royal Printer was appointed in 1504,and to his successor, Richard Pynson, in 1518, the first printing “privilege” was issued, in the form of a prohibition for two years of the printing by any other person of a certain speech to which this first English copyright notice was appended. Bishop Fell, in his memoirs on the state of printing in the University of Oxford, states that this University had been granted certain exclusive privileges of transcribing and multiplying books by means of writing; and Lowndes in his early “Historical sketch of the law of copyright,” published in 1840 and 1842, cites many early privileges, most commonly for seven years, granted after the invention of printing.

An early enactment of Richard III, in 1483, had encouraged the circulation of books by exempting from certain restraints on aliens “any artificer, or merchant stranger, of what nation or country he be, for bringing into this realm, or selling by retail or otherwise, any books written or printed, or for inhabiting within this said realm for the same intent, or any scrivener, alluminor, reader, or printer of such books.” But fifty years later, under Henry VIII, this exemption was repealed by an act, “for printers and binders of books,” which provided that no persons “resident or inhabitant within this realm shall buy to sell again, any printed books brought from any parts out of the King’s obeysance, ready bound in boards, leather, or parchment,” or buy “of any stranger born out of the King’s obedience, other than of denizens, any manner of printed books brought from any parties beyond the sea, except only by engross, and not by retail” — the buyer to be punished by a fine, of which a moiety was to go to the informer. The act also contained provisions to “reform and redress,” through the Chancery judges with “twelve honest and discreet persons,” “too high and unreasonable prices.”

Book resriction

The quaint preamble of this act of 1533 sets forth restriction as its “whereas,” in reference to the act of Richard III, that “there hath come to this realm si then the making of the same, a marvelous number of printed books, and daily doth ; and the cause of the making of the same provision seemeth to be, for that there were but few books, and few printers within this realm at that time, which could well exercise and occupy the said science and craft of printing; nevertheless, sithen the making of the said provision, many of this realm, being the King’s natural subjects, have given them so diligently to learn and exercise the said craft of printing, that at this day there be within this realm a great number cunning and expert in the said science or craft of printing, as able to exercise the said craft in all points, as any stranger in any other realm or country; and furthermore, where there be a great number of the King’s subjects within this realm, which live by the craft and mystery of binding of books, and that there be a great multitude well expert in the same, yet all this notwithstanding, there are divers persons that bring from beyond the sea great plenty of printed books, not only in the Latin tongue, but also in our maternal English tongue, some bound in boards, some in leather, and some in parchment, and them sell by retail, whereby many of the King’s subjects, being binders of books, and having no other faculty wherewith to get their living, be destitute of work and like to be undone, except some reformation herein be had.” This is interesting in connection with the American manufacturing clause.

Henry VIII granted many printing privileges, and in 1530 the first English copyright to an author was Early
English protection issued to John Palsgrave, who, having prepared a French grammar at his own expense, received a privilege for seven years. In 1533 appeared the first complaint of piracy, that of Wynken de Worde, who obtained the King’s privilege for his second edition of Witinton’s Grammar, because Peter Trevers had reprinted it from the edition of 1523. Up to the middle of the sixteenth century copyrights were in form printers’ licenses, and even in the case cited Palsgrave seems to have been recognized rather because he published his own book than because he wrote it.

The Stationers’ Company

The Stationers’ Company, created by Henry VIII and chartered under Queen Mary in 1556, though the development of an earlier guild dating from 1403, was in part a device to prevent seditious printing, by prohibiting any printing in England except by those registered in its membership. In 1558, under a second charter, its by-laws provided that every one who printed a book should register it and pay a fee, and those who failed to do this, or who printed another member’s book, were to be fined. In 1562 licenses were declared void “if any other has a right,” and in 1573 sales of “copy” are entered. The practice had grown up of granting patents or monopolies to persons for a wh~6Te’ class of books; the Stationers’ Company itself held that for almanacs up to a very late period, and the Crown has retained that on the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer to the present day. These monopolies were defied, and the Star Chamber decree of 1566, disabling offending printers from exercising their trade and prescribing imprisonment, did not avail. In 1640 the Star Chamber and all the regulations of the press were abolished by the Long Parliament, but the abuse of unlicensed printing led to a new licensing act in 1643, which prohibited printing or importing without consent of the owner, on pain of forfeiture of copies to the owner, and which renewed the order that all books should be entered in the register of the Stationers’ Company. The early registers still exist in Stationers’ Hall, near Paternoster Row, London, in quaint and almost undecipherable chirography, and some of them have been reissued in facsimile. It was against the licensing act of this date that Milton, in 1644, printed his “Areopagitica,” but he particularly excepts from his criticism of the act the part providing for “the just retaining of each man his several copy, which God forbid should be gainsaid.”

Statutory provisions

In 1649 Parliament provided a penalty of 65. Sd. and forfeiture for the reprinting of registered books, and prohibited presses except at London, Finsbury, York, and the universities, and in 1662 it added the requirement of deposit of a copy at the King’s library and at each of the universities. To prevent fraudulent changes in a book after licensing, it was further required that a copy be deposited with the licenser at the time of application — apparently the origin of our record-deposit. With the expiration of these acts in 1679, legislative penalties lapsed and piracy became common. Charles II in 1684 renewed the charter of the Stationers’ Company, approved its register, and confirmed to proprietors of books “the sole right, power, and privilege and authority of printing, as has been usual heretofore.” The licensing act of 1649-62 was revived in 1685, and renewed up to 1694, although the booksellers now petitioned against it, and eleven peers protested against subjecting learning to a mercenary and perhaps ignorant licenser, and destroying the property of authors in their copies. The law lapsed because of the indignation of the Commons against the arbitrary power of the license, but the result was the abolition of statutory Englandpenalties, which left the punishment of piracy a matter of damages at common law, requiring a separate action for each copy sold, usually against irresponsible people. Piracy again flourished. The right at common law seems, however, to have been unquestioned, and the Court of Common Pleas held that a plaintiff who had purchased from the executors of an author was owner of the property at common law. Owners of literary property petitioned Parliament, 1703 to 1709, for security and redress, declaring that the property of English authors had always been held as sacred among the traders, that conveyance gave just and legal title, that the property was the same with houses and other estates, and that existing “copies” had cost at least £50,000, and had been used in marriage settlements and were the subsistence of many widows and orphans. This led to the famous statute of Anne, introduced in 1709, and passed March, 1710, ” for the encouragement of learning,” said to have been drawn in its original form by Swift, which remains the practical foundation of copyright in England and America to-day.

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