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The Book as Intellectual Property: 15th-16th Century

With the introduction of the printing press, there was a need for content to print. Rather than hiring authors to create content, many printers published unauthorized copies of existing works instead. The protection of literary property became an immediate concern.

According to Pollard (1912) in his work Fine Books, "Aldus had been justly annoyed at the clever counterfeits of his italic octavos which were put on the market at Lyon." People were interested in copying both the content of the work as well as the printing style.

Authors, Patronage, and Property

The notion that an author is the proprietor of intellectual property is a relatively new idea. Authors during the 15th and 16th century, relied on patrons to support their work. Rather than thinking of themselves as creators and owners of intellectual property, most were simply providing a service to a client. According to Rose (1993, 16),

"the major relations of exchange for authors occurred within a traditional patronage system in which, through a complex set of symbolic and materials transactions, patrons received honor and status in the form of service from their clients and in return provided both materials and immaterials rewards... the concept of an author owning a work did not quite fit the circumstances of literary production in the traditional patronage system. Even the printing privileges sometimes granted to authors as well as to guildsmen are best understood as versions of patronage rather than of ownership."

If you were wealthy, you could afford to hire playwrights, authors, and scientists to write for you and your friends. As the paying patron sponsoring a project, you could restrict who had access to this information because the result of the work was your intellectual property. You might only create copies for your family members or political friends.

Printing Privileges

At first the number of printers was small, so there was little competition. A patron might hire an author to create a work and a printer to produce it. However as the craft of printing became formalized and business grew, competition for the chance to print works increased.

The concept of printing privileges emerged as the printing press became widespread. Armstrong 2002, 1) stated that it

"was the right of a ruler to grant a 'privilege' or commercial monopoly, whether permanently or for a fixed period of time, within his jurisdiction, to the inventor or initiator of a new process, a new product or a new source of supply (such as mines) capable of exploitation for profit."

Bowker (1912, 10) noted that

"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 copyright 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 representative of living writers; and there are early instances of direct grants to authors, the earliest known being in 1486 in Venice to Sabellico."

The image below left shows Marcus Antonius Coccius Sabellicus (1436–1506).


To see Marco Antonio Sabellico's Printing Privilege from 1486, click the image above right.

According to Rose (1993, 17), Antonio Sabellico received an appointment as a librarian with a stipend along with his privilege as a reward for this service rather than as "a right due an author". In the same way, Samuel Daniel was granted a privilege for his History of England by King James. The king was acting as a patron providing honors and rewards for "worthy individuals" rather than providing a right to "intellectual property".


johnRather than being used to encourage authorship, printing privileges were a means to encourage printing by eliminating competition and increasing profits (Rogers, 1908).

In 1469, German printer Johannes of Speyer came from Mainz where he had learned the printing trade. His first book was Epistolae ad Familiares by Circero in 1469. Speyer was given exclusive privileges to print books in Venice for a period of five years. As such, Speyer held a monopoly on printing during this time.

The image on the right shows the privilege document given to Speyer. Click the image to see the digital reproduction. Also read the transcription detailing the privilege.

On January 3, 1492, Peter of Ravenna (c. 1448-1508) was given the right to print and sell his Phoenix seu artificiosa memoria by the Senate in Venice. Some consider this to be the first instance of copyright (Bowker, 1912; Armstrong, 2002). The book focused on memorization techniques. The privileges noted that others were forbidden from printing or selling copies of the the book on pain of confiscation of the books and a fine.

Copyright privileges also began to recognize family members. In 1493, Barbaro was allowed privilege for a period of ten years to reproduce the work of his deceased brother (Bowker, 1912).

Armstrong (2002) notes that printers and publishers began making increasingly numerous and excessive demands related to privileges. By the early 16th century whole categories of books were being locked in for long periods of time paralyzing the book-trade in Venice. The Senate was forced to revoke privileges and rethink the system.

By the mid 16th century, Italy had formalized their registry process. For instance, in 1569 as many as 117 copyright entries were made in Italy (Bowker, 1912).

Germany and Switzerland

Germany was one of the first areas to reflect the need for laws associated with intellectual property rights. While some printers relied on courtesy, others brought suits. Bowker (1912, 10) stated

"Koberger, the early Nuremberg printer, whose imprint dates back to 1473, 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 Schoffer, who with Furst had established the first publishing and bookselling business, brought in connection with Fust's heirs against Inkus of Frankfort for the infringement of a preliminary injunction by a court at Basel, indicating some definite legal status."

During this time, there were questions about what might be considered a privilege, copyright, license, or authorization to print. However, it's clear that individuals and businesses were seeking justice for what they saw as unauthorized duplication of works. Booksellers were warned against keeping or selling unauthorized editions of works. According to Bowker (1912, 12),

"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, privileging printers as well as other guilds within a city."

Martin Luther (1483-1546) spoke out against unauthorized copying in a letter in the mid 1520s complaining that "there are many now busying themselves with the spoiling of books through misprinting them." He supported law to protect intellectual property.


Like other countries, printers in France also began seeking privileges. In France, the authority of the king was enforced, so a privilege system worked well. Applications were made through the state, royal chancery, Parliaments, or officers of the Crown which all went through the King.

The earliest grants were handled through the royal chancery by Charles VIII then Louis XII and Francis I in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In the early 16th century, privileges were also issued through the sovereign courts.

Authority was given by the libraires jures at the University of Paris. The King's approval was required through the royal librarian. The grant was generally made in perpetuity to the printer and a copy was required to be deposited in the library.

In 1556, Henry II defined intellectual property and declared publication of condemned books as treason. Infringement of privileges was considered a serious offense.

Privilege Areas

ludArmstrong (2002) notes that

"privileges were of limited value in countries which were politically fragmented, rendering a privilege granted in one state valueless in another." In an effort to gain control of works beyond a particular region or country, some authors, printers, and publishers sought a privilege that reached beyond a specific area.

A papal privilege was one option. This privilege made piracy illegal in the papal states. Acquiring a papal privilege was expensive (Armstrong, 2002).

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1633) was an Italian author who hoped to reduce piracy of his Orlando Furioso (1516) by obtaining a privilege from Pope Leo X.

The privilege forbid anyone to print or sell the work without the author's permission under pain of excommunication, confiscation of the work, and a fine.

The image on the right shows Ludovico Ariosto.

Another option was a privilege granted by the Holy Roman Emperor. This would also cover a broader area than a town or country.

Conrad Celtes (1459-1508) was a German scholar and author who gained an imperial privilege from emperor Maximilian I and the imperial Aulic Council. In the preface of a work of Hroswitha of Gandersheim Celtes published in 1501, he noted that he held a privilege that covered the imperial cities for ten years. Celtic also obtained a privilege from the magistracy of Frankfort since no national privilege was available.


In 1465 the first printed cookbook was written by Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481). Titled De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine or On Honourable Pleasure and Health, it included 250 recipes. The book was very popular and translated into at least four languages. However it's also an example of plagiarism. Most of Platina's recipes were copied word for word from the work of Martino de Rossi of Como. In addition, the recipes continued to be copied by others.

This activity of plagiarizing cookbooks was a widespread problem. For instance, the contents of the manuscript A Boke of Kokery written in 1440 became the basis of a printed book called This Boke of Cookery in 1500. Copying continued through the centuries. Hannah Glasse published The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy in 1747. This book contained hundreds of copied recipes, yet it was a well-respected work.

Plagiarism of both parts of books such as recipes as well as entire works was common in other book types also.

Copyright Conflicts

Copyright conflicts could interfere with the printing and distribution of books.

In the early 1530s, Charles Estienne was working on a book titled De Dissectione or The Dissection (images shown below). The book should have been printed long before Vesalius's landmark medical book. However according to Lommen (2012, 106), "because of a copyright conflict with the surgeon Etienne de La Riviere - who is mentioned for his contributions - De Dissectione came out after the publication of Vesalius's book."


Copyright and Suppression

Some of the early copyright laws focused on suppression rather than freedom. Ringer (1974, 8) states that

"the invention of moveable type and its increasing use collided with the desire of the governments to suppress dissident writing. The beneficiaries of these primitive copyrights were the publishers who agreed to buy monopolies in exchange for freedom of the press. Authors were paid off in lump sums, usually quite low."

England and the London's Stationers' Company

In 1483, Richard III encouraged the printing and circulation of books both inside and outside the country. In 1504 a Royal Printer was named. The first printing privilege was issued in 1518. However Henry VIII repealed earlier acts and prohibited buying and selling of books brought into the country. Instead he wished to control printing privileges. In 1530, the first English copyright to an author was issued to John Palsgrave (c. 1485-1554), a priest and textbook author. His grammar book was dedicated to Henry VIII.

The Stationers' Company was created by Henry VIII in 1548 and formed by decree of Queen Mary in 1556. This London-based guild of printers and publishers defined intellectual property rights, but was also known for their censorship practices. The printing of any book for sale was prohibited without it being registered by a member of the Company. This approach controlled the press and provided a monopoly for the Company. It's main goal was the suppression of religious ideas of the Protestant Reformation.

According to Loewenstein (2010), the beginning of copyright in England involved a number of different approaches to regulating printed works. One approach was the granting of privileges and licenses by royalty to authors, printers, or booksellers. In England, London's Stationers' Company created a registry of titles. Finally, patents were awarded by the government for categories of books.

The Stationers' Company developed increasingly restrictive even limiting who could produce Bibles and the Book of Common Prayer.


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