The Stationers’ Company and Copyright: a brief introduction
By Noel Osborne
Stationers’ Hall lies at the historic heart of the British printing and publishing industries. Names such as Paternoster Row – the lane which ran from Amen Corner through St Paul’s Churchyard to what is now St Paul’s Underground Station -resonate with anyone who examines imprints and verso title pages.
How did all this come about? It was no accident that the early members of our guild, formed in 1403, practised their craft or ‘mistery’ close to St Paul’s Cathedral. These text-writers, limners and ‘other good citizens of London who also bind and sell books’ were producing and selling their handmade books for a market that was overwhelmingly clerical. They operated – unlike itinerant traders – from fixed, ’stationary’ stands. Hence our name: Stationers.
This Guild was incorporated as the Company of Stationers of London by the royal Charter – granted by Philip of Spain and Mary Tudor – of 4 May 1557. The significance of a charter at that time can be appreciated when we recognise that, in the intervening century and a half since the formation of the Guild, two seismic shocks had marked the beginning of our modern world: first, the introduction of printing into England in 1476 made it possible to produce books for a mass, lay audience. Secondly, the Reformation brought in new ways of thinking.
As in all good business, there was something in it for both sides: the Crown and The Stationers’ Company. While the Company feared the opportunity for piracy that mass production offered, the Charter, in effect, provided the Crown with an agent, as Mary realised that previous attempts to impose royal control on every new publication had failed. The Company was expected to find a way to stem the constant flow of seditious and heretical books. This could be dangerous territory: the Stationers’ Charter was granted by a Catholic queen, but its confirmation two years later was by Protestant Elizabeth.
So, in addition to the normal rights afforded to a company, two specific privileges obtained by the Stationers on their own terms are enshrined in our Charter:
Firstly, exclusivity. No-one in the realm should act as a printer unless he were a Freeman of the Stationers’ Company of London. Secondly, the Master and Wardens had the right to search the houses and business premises of all printers, bookbinders and booksellers in the kingdom, and to ’seize, take, hold, burn’ anything printed without proper qualification, or who resisted the search. A Decree of 1566 strengthened this power still further by giving the Wardens the right to enter warehouses at ports and to examine any bales suspected of containing books.
From the 1560s, therefore, a form of copyright could be secured by two methods: by royal Letters Patent; or by our Guild rule that made it an offence not to present to the Wardens – to put on record, as in the text ‘Entered at Stationers’ Hall’ – every publication not protected by royal privilege. Even our short-lived Charter of 1684 includes royal approval of our ‘publick Register’. Thus were printers and booksellers, if not authors or translators, safeguarded. This simple form of copyright protection was, as the historian Cyprian Blagden puts it, ‘for about 350 years, in the eyes of the English-speaking world, the raison d’etre of the Stationers’ Company.’
Indeed, by 1610 the Company had signed an Agreement with Sir Thomas Bodley to deposit a copy of every new book in the University Library at Oxford: this would be a feature of all future copyright control. It would be wrong to pretend that the system worked smoothly. The Company suffered innumerable problems with the protection of copyright, the conflicts between printers and booksellers, wholesalers and retailers, and with the unworkable Printing Act which lapsed forever in April 1695, while itself regularly defaulting on the deposit of new books in the Bodleian Library.
The first Copyright Act of 1709 gave the Stationers the maximum of theoretical authority and the minimum of practical power. Nonetheless, Copyright is the unique strand of overwhelming importance within the Stationers’ Company. When the Copyright Act of 1911 came into force on 1 July 1912 it brought to an end the practice of record-keeping which the Stationers of the 16th century invented for their mutual protection, which Parliament adopted and modified through a series of Acts over two centuries, and which in modern times has given the Company a unique piece of international fame: the invention of copyright.
 The 1709 Statute of Anne, “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”, took effect on 10 April 1710.
Noel Osborne read Classics and History at Cambridge, and has been a specialist publisher of British local, family and corporate history for more than forty years. In 1968 he was instrumental in reviving the dormant publishing house, Phillimore, as editorial and production director for twenty years, before taking over as managing director in 1992, and chairman in 2006. He has personally seen through the press more than two thousand titles, including a modern, county-by-county translation of Domesday Book, and many Livery Company histories.
He was cloathed as a Liveryman of The Stationers’ Company in 1974, and served as Master for 2008/09.