Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 4. Copyright before 1709

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIV. Book Production and Distribution, 1625–1800

§ 4. Copyright before 1709

The passing of the first English Copyright act in 1709 began a new period in the evolution of the law of literary property. Hitherto, the only recognised form of copyright which had existed was that which a member of the Stationers’ company secured by the entry of a “copy” in the company’s register, and this was a purely trade regulation in which the author was completely ignored. The monopoly of a work for a specified number of years, which was occasionally granted to the writer by royal patent, was an exceptional case and only emphasises the generally defenceless position of authors.

In the sixteenth century, the Stationers’ company had virtual control of the whole trade and exercised a tolerably efficient supervision over its members. But, during the succeeding century, a number of causes tended to undermine its authority, so that, at length, it became unable either to protect its members from the piracy of outside traders or to restrain the less orderly among its own ranks. The company, at different times, sought, by various means, to regain its old power and importance, but in vain. All efforts merely served to demonstrate the impotence of the guild to control the trade in the old way, and to show that the day was past for imposing restrictive fetters upon so important a craft. The misdoings of piratical printers had long been a cause of vexation to the owners of copyrights, and when, by the final lapse of the licensing laws in 1694, all restraint was removed, booksellers were at their wits’ end to know how to protect their property. Finally, the aid of parliament was evoked, and, after several abortive attempts to secure legislation on the subject, a bill, which is said to have been originally drafted by Swift, though much altered in committee, was passed in 1709, under the title “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.”