1.2.8: 1460 - 1585 - Copyright and piracy

The printers and publishers who, in the first decades after the invention of the art of printing, brought a book on the market had no idea yet of the rights of ownership and therefore to duplication of the text which might apply to any possible previous publisher, never mind an author. The great difference from manuscript production, however, was that much larger financial interests were involved in the publication of printed texts. As commercial publishers suffered increasing competition from poorly corrected copies which were often printed in a smaller format or on cheap paper and which were sold below the price of the original, the view gained ground that this reprinting, also called piracy, was not acceptable. This led to the idea that the right of publication was attached to the possession of the original copy, the copyright.

There were various ways in which to protect copyright. One could try to undermine the reprinters by dumping one's own edition at a lower price or by producing a new, improved edition. Books could be provided with a hallmark such as a printer's device. The public could be informed of the deceit of the reprinters in the foreword of one's own edition. A weapon often used, that is if the identity of the pirate printer could be established, was retribution.

In the latter decades of the fifteenth century the practice arose abroad of applying to the authorities for protection of the copyright in the form of a privilege or patent for a particular edition or editions. This letter of protection was provided by authorities at all levels: towns, universities, regional or national governing bodies and royalty. The validity of these privileges was limited to the jurisdiction of the authority in question. The duration of the privilege varied from a few months to ten years or more. Violation meant confiscation of the reprints and a fine. The applicants were mostly printers and booksellers; authors only rarely. In addition to a source of income, the provision of privileges gave the authorities an opportunity to oversee the production of titles. In more and more countries, the issuing of privileges therefore gradually evolved into a method of preventive censorship, in addition to the mandatory imprimatur from the Church.

The earliest known book patent in the Netherlands was issued on 5 January 1512 by the Council of Brabant which together with the Privy Council was the most important patent-issuing body at that time, to the Antwerp printer Claes de Grave for the printing of new books for a period of six years. The number of privileges subsequently increased rapidly, especially for work by printers from the Southern Netherlands and, sometimes, authors. The first printer from the Northern Netherlands to receive a privilege was the Amsterdam printer, Doen Pietersz, who received a general patent in 1516 for his works still to be published.

The intensification of censorship led central authorities as early as 1529 to oblige publishers to request a privilege for any religious publication, an obligation which soon applied to all books. It is also certain that this condition was not by any means always met. Nor were the authorities able to provide the printers and publishers with a guarantee of effective protection against piracy. The chance of tracing reprinters in this turbulent period was slight.

Breaches of copyright should not, however, only be seen as a negative side-effect of the art of printing. Piracy was also a response to the excessively high prices, monopolies and poor distribution and therefore functioned as an economic regulatory mechanism. In addition, cheap reprints gave many more people access to printed texts.

author: P.G. Hoftijzer

Copyright and piracy