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The Worshipful Monopoly of Printer-Publishers
Part Ten in a series on Copyright in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
A big hello to the new subscribers to The Owner’s Guide To The Future! I am happy you joined us. This newsletter offers perspectives that can bring the future into focus. Today we are in the middle of a series about the centuries-long evolution of copyright. We want to consider how these laws will evolve in the new era of AI. You can find the first article in this series here.
Lately, I’ve been leading readers on a guided tour of The Major Milestones In Copyright History. That’s because most of the big issues that will govern copyright in the age of AI were framed centuries ago.
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This week we’re paying a short visit to Tudor England, where the granting of licenses and royal monopolies was a booming enterprise in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Tuesday’s article, we considered one particular habit that was shared by all Tudor monarchs: selling exclusive licenses known as “Letters Patent.”
Let’s imagine economic life in Tudor England
Today it is difficult to conjure up a clear notion of economic and social reality in the mid 1500s. That’s because of cultural conditioning in our present time. We’ve been raised in a world where the government and private enterprise are expected to stay in their own lanes (some of us feign outrage when they collide or overlap); a world where we pay lip service to the mythical ideal of a “free market” while we do our best to bend the rules in our favor; a world where private companies exist mainly to anticipate and cater to every consumer whim; and where the main job of government is to facilitate private enterprise and then get the hell out of the way. And in the United States, we have been conditioned to believe that our laws are no longer shaped by the values of one particular religion, though that is obviously false.
In the 1500s, none of these things were true.
Government in the 16th century was dominated by a monarch who had absolute power over life and death; control over the entire economy; and purview over all affairs of state.
He or she had the final decision on any point of law. The courts answered to him or to her. The monarch made the final decision about war and peace. The monarch determined how the national treasury would be used… or squandered. He or she decided which industries to foster and which to ban or neglect.
It was most certainly not a democracy. Nobles and counselors resisted the king at their peril. If they advocated, they did so with utmost humility and with silver-tongued flattery. Close advisors could be dismissed on a whim, and perceived rivals were dispatched by an assassin, or trumped-up charges, or banishment.
Most European monarchs at the time were answerable only to the Pope as a higher authority. But not in England. In 1534 Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which defined the right of Henry VIII to be supreme head on earth of the Church of England, thereby severing ecclesiastical links with Rome. He answered to no one.
As a non-noble subject in this society, you had few rights. Your home, your family, and your property could be seized at any time. You could be imprisoned. You could be tried for charges with false evidence, or false testimony. Or without charges. Your existence depended upon the grace of the monarch. A new king could upend your entire world.
Monopolies, once granted by a monarch, could be perpetual… unless the King had a change of mind. Then the grant could be revoked or nullified. Little thought was spared for the consequences.
It did not matter much to the King if the newly-minted monopoly wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of those who had worked in that field previously. Professions that had once been vibrant with competition could be served up to a court-favored monopolist; then overnight, all competition ceased. Which often meant that innovation ceased.
If you chose to continue to practice your profession after a monopoly had been granted, you risked paying huge fines and suffering punishments that included imprisonment, dismemberment, loss of property and death.
Set aside for a moment the modern mindset that anyone is entitled to start whatever new venture they wish. Imagine instead that you are working in an economy where you must seek permission just to do your job. And that permission could be revoked.
To give you an idea of just how heavily controlled the economy of England was in the 16th century, you might enjoy this short snide column by the Grumpy Economist. In it, he recounts an oft-told tale about William Lee, a clergyman who paid a visit to Queen Elizabeth I in order to obtain a patent for his invention, the stocking frame.
The meeting was brokered by Lord Hunson and his son, Sir William Cary, a favorite of Elizabeth’s. They expected Elizabeth to grant money, or a monopoly, or both.
Elizabeth declined because the timing was bad. As we noted on Tuesday, the Queen was already on the receiving end of endless amounts of grief from Parliament because of her predilection for doling out patent monopolies to cronies.
In short, Mr. Lee met the Queen on the wrong day and failed to obtain his patent. Tough luck, Mr. Lee.
I won’t recount the tale here because it is marred by a fanciful quote that is attributed to the Queen (the Grumpy Economist does, so if you are really curious, click through and read it).
The most interesting observation is that, even though Lee had invented a truly powerful new machine, he did not attempt to start a business with it, nor did he seek to raise capital to produce a large quantity of the machines and sell them to other knitting companies. That’s modern thinking.
Instead, his first stop (and really, his only stop) was at the palace, where he paid a visit to the Queen with the hope of obtaining a monopoly. He wanted to get an EZ Pass to skip the hard work of setting up a new company. He wanted to sew up the entire market before even he had even considered how to launch the actual business.
To modern ears, this story sounds bad. That kind of deal seems crooked or unfair. How lame, an inventor who turns to government to get a monopoly, instead of pursuing the heroic entrepreneurial route of bootstrapping a business and maybe, in success, building a monopoly. This exactly what contemporary “free market” conservatives decry: big government picking winners and losers.
But that’s 21st-century mental conditioning.
In the 1500s, the only option available to entrepreneurs was to pay a visit to the King or Queen on bended knee. Without a monopoly grant, it was impossible to finance a new venture.
After Queen Liz demurred, Lee had no choice but to leave England and seek his fortune in France. He failed there too, before dying in obscurity.
It turns out, however, that Reverend Lee was right. Many years later, the stocking frame became the foundation of a vast knitwear industry. His invention of the bearded needle remains unchanged to this day. But he died a poor man because he could not obtain a royal endorsement for his invention. After that, no investor would touch his venture.
As the Grumpy Economist writes:
The interesting observation here: it's 1589, and you invent a cool new machine, say for making stockings. What do you do with it? You and I might answer, "start making stockings." You can undersell the competition and make a bundle. Or, we might answer, "start selling stocking-making machines." Sure, others will follow, but you have a big first-mover advantage. Yes, if a modern patent system were up and running it might be useful to get a patent and try to slow down competitors. But first and foremost, get the business going.
That Lee did not do this -- that it seems not even to have occurred to him - is telling about just how controlled and regulated economies apparently were at the time.
That was generally true of all industry, not just those shaped by technological innovations or new kinds of manufacturing. Monopolies were issued in every conceivable profession, from cloth making to grain and food and wine and mining and more than 100 different industries.
This is confounding to modern minds. The Elizabethan government dominated private industry to such a degree that our modern concept of entrepreneurship would have been inconceivable.
Now, bearing this incident in mind, let’s return to today’s theme: books and copyright monopolies.
What about books?
What does the tale about a knitting machine have to do with the origins of copyright?
The point is that the Tudor monarchs so dominated the nascent manufacturing economy of 16th century England that royal monopolies were the first and only strategy for entrepreneurs of every stripe.
Book publishers were no exception to this rule. They benefitted tremendously from monopolies bestowed by the monarch.
Incredibly, book publishing was subject to even more stringent controls than other industries. Let’s take a closer look..
Printing had come to England about a decade before the first Tudor king, Henry VII, snatched the crown from Richard III. In 1476, William Caxton established the first moveable type printing press in Westminster.
At the time, there were already constraints in place about what could or could not be published. For example, no printer could publish work by John Wycliffe (1330-1384), a medieval priest, scholar, philosopher and theologian.
Who was John Wycliffe?
Digression alert! John Wycliffe died roughly 100 years before Martin Luther was born. In many respects, he anticipated Luther. The parallels between these two reforming priests are striking.
Just like Luther 150 years later, Wycliffe translated the Bible into the local language, supervising the process of writing out the Bible in vernacular Middle English.
Just like Luther, Wycliffe voiced sharp objections to the way that the sale of indulgences corrupted the Catholic Church.
Just like Luther, he took his case directly to the people, bypassing the Church by publishing his work in English as well as in Latin. His English-language editions could be read aloud by the literate for the enjoyment and enlightenment of the large number of illiterate followers.
Like Luther’s decision to publish in German, Wycliffe chose to publish in English for a very specific purpose: he intended to radicalize poor country priests and their rural parishes. They could not read or speak Latin. So he wrote in the language they understood.
Wycliffe proposed a radical agenda to cleanse what he viewed as a fatally corrupted Church: the clergy should sell off all property, give up all worldly possessions and live in poverty.
His message proved to be popular among rural priests and their parishes, who were already quite poor and therefore had nothing to lose. They shared his resentment towards the greedy bishops who sold indulgences to rich men.
(Today we feel the same way when Clear sells a fast route through TSA airport security to executive travelers; we dislike those who buy their way to the front of the queue.)
Wycliffe presented an unambiguous threat to the Church. Predictably, his reformist message fell flat among the Church hierarchy. Bishops enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and income from property holdings. They did not enjoy being called out in public for their luxuries. Wycliffe collected many enemies among the higher ranks of the clergy.
Like Luther, Wycliffe also gained quiet support among some factions of English nobility. He was protected. He was not killed. He published tracts against the pope and the church hierarchy, which he deemed irretrievably corrupt. He argued that there was no justification for the pope in the scriptures.
It won’t surprise you to know that Wycliffe’s work caused a ruckus in Rome. However, given the slow pace of communication in the late 1300s, the Pope who was the object of Wycliffe’s attacks happened to die before he could respond. Then Wycliffe himself died peacefully before the next Pope could send killers to silence him.
But that did not stop the new Pope from exacting a truly creepy revenge.
Payback from the Pope eventually did arrive in England for John Wycliffe. It was macabre. Wycliffe’s bones were dug up from his grave, then burned and tossed into a river. After his death, all of his works were burned, and so were many of his followers.
Thereafter, at the request of the Church, English kings banned his works. This was in the days before Henry VIII, when the crown still respected the Pope. All future publication of Wycliffe’s writing was prohibited.
And this is where Wycliffe’s story differs sharply from Luther’s 100 years later. Because the printing press had not yet been invented, it was much easier for the government to suppress Wycliffe’s work. There were simply far fewer copies in circulation. The means of reproduction at the time - ink-stained monks in a scriptorium - was easy to control.
That is why, in sharp contrast to Luther, Wycliffe’s written work did not cause English society to erupt in rebellion. His work simply did not reach a large number of people quickly enough to build momentum.
As we noted last week, the printing press changed that dynamic. That’s why kings needed to control it. Now back to our story.
An Invasion of Foreign Printers
When the first Tudor king seized the throne of England, he inherited a censorship system that was already working to suppress the works of Wycliffe and similar heretics known as Lollards. Convenient for a king whose legitimacy was challenged. Henry VII maintained it and his son, Henry VIII, expanded the censorship.
When Martin Luther’s reformation began to spread across Europe after 1520, with religious conflict and social turmoil trailing close behind, the English government was already well prepared for information warfare. They had been practicing censorship for 100 years.
Luther’s works were preemptively banned. No English printer could reproduce them or publish them. No importer could bring the works into the realm. The import ban was important because the young Dutch Republic already boasted a thriving business of cranking out copies of forbidden books in English and German, then exporting them into the very markets where they were banned.
Soon after the Reformation began, a steady procession of refugees from religious wars began to arrive in England. This included Germans who had expertise in printing, as well as printers from other regions (like Lithuania) who had been trained by Germans. As they landed in London, they set up high quality printing establishments that gave the native-born English printers like William Caxton a run for their money.
Some of these newcomers were fleeing from turmoil in their hometowns as religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics burned across Europe. Some of them brought pernicious ideas to England. Some brought banned books.
To Henry VII and his councillors, this felt like a foreign invasion. So they clamped down hard on foreign-born printers. They imposed a strict limit on the number of foreign workers who could be employed by a foreign-born printer, and they added a requirement to train English employees and apprentices.
This policy was plainly intended to accelerate knowledge transfer to English workers, while minimizing the risk that a foreign-born printer might employ a gang of foreign workers to promote foreign ideas.
(Reader, if you’ve ever been involved in a Western company’s attempt to set up a publishing business in contemporary China, then you’ll be familiar with policies of imposed knowledge transfer to the local workforce and state censorship of media. We flatter ourselves when we think that we have made great progress since 1530. That’s vanity, the conceit of modern superiority).
Given that many of the new arrivals happened to come from Germany, where Luther’s work accounted for some 20% of all German-language publications, King Henry’s blanket ban on printing Luther’s work was very likely a prudent decision.
The new king already faced enough challengers; he felt no desire to add zealous Protestant reformers from Germany to the list. So he shut Luther’s books down.
How Henry VIII took full control of publishing
When the Protestant Reformation finally reached English shores, the government already had system to censor printing and maintain total control of an information environment.
King Henry VIII understood the destabilizing potential of free speech and the power of mechanical reproduction of books to undermine a king’s authority.
In 1538, Henry decided to dial up the controls a few notches. He ruled that every new book must be submitted to his Privy Council for approval prior to publication. During his reign, and thereafter, every book published in England and Wales obtained a license from the Privy Council. These licenses were proudly displayed on the first or second page of the books that were published then.
Bluntly stated: book publishers were obliged to seek permission because they did not possess the right to publish freely.
Why was Henry so determined to micromanage the information economy?
One major reason was Henry VIII’s messy personal life. He had famously repudiated the Pope, and claimed the role as the head of the church for himself, all because of a domestic problem. This was the Act of Supremacy mentioned at the top of this article.
Henry was frustrated that his wife did not provide him a male heir. Since he was all-powerful, the petulant monarch wanted to replace the first wife with a new one. The Pope refused to play ball by granting a divorce and annulling the marriage. Henry was frustrated.
Unaccustomed to being denied what he wanted, Henry instead chose the nuclear option. He decided to blow up the Catholic Church in England.
The King became the head of the Church of England.
It’s hard to convey just how wrenching this decision was for everyone else in the kingdom. England instantly became a Protestant nation; Henry’s court and leading nobility were obliged to switch religions publicly, or risk imprisonment or death. Tens of thousands of non-compliant faithful were killed. Church property was seized.
All because the top guy wanted to marry his mistress.
One result: Henry was obsessed with managing public perception and controlling the beliefs of his subjects. Hence the heavy-handed intervention in the info economy.
The tarnished legacy of Bloody Mary
Control of the information economy grew more complicated after Henry VIIIs death, because the carefully-orchestrated transition to his son, Edward, was disrupted by his untimely death. Edward VI died when he was only 15.
That’s when the crown passed to Henry’s daughter, Mary Tudor, who was devoutly Catholic. She had married a Spanish king who was also devout. She intended to reverse the English Reformation, reverting back to Catholicism after her father had spent decades chasing down Catholics, killing priests, seizing property, and establishing the Church of England. This caused further turmoil.
Mary’s unexpected ascent in 1553 thrust Henry’s religious legacy into jeopardy. Her father’s Protestant councillors suddenly found themselves in great peril: many fled to other nations. Mary came after them with a vengeance. She repealed Henry VIII's and Edward VI's religious laws, and in 1555, she passed heresy laws that forbade the practice of Protestantism in England.
The reason she bears the sobriquet “Bloody Mary” today is because of her alleged zeal for killing Protestants. But that label was applied by Protestant historians who came much later. Payback? Probably. During her five years on the throne, it is true that more than 300 subjects convicted of heresy were burned at the stake. That sounds dreadful (and no doubt it was) but Mary’s score in this grisly contest is not much different from her successor, sister Elizabeth I. And Henry VIII racked up a much bigger body count, having killed between 50,000 and 70,000 people. Nobody calls him “Bloody Henry." History is written by the winners.
Mary reigned for only five years before succumbing to an illness. She left behind social and political chaos, an empty treasury and a whopping big debt. And a total monopoly on the business of printing books.
Let’s digress. At this point, you may be wondering, “What is the real story behind the weird Catholic obsession with burning people at the stake?”
Wasn’t it enough simply to kill opponents and bury them?
No, it wasn’t. Heresy was seen at the time as a contagious infection. Burning was the way to remove the contagion from society. Like cauterizing a wound.
Less poetically, another reason for burning heretics and scattering their ashes was to prevent any surviving zealots from retrieving a bone or a spare body part, and turning it into a relic. This sounds ghastly, but it certainly happened. At the time, relics of saints were considered devotional objects; entire Cathedrals were constructed to house a finger bone or other relic of a famous saint.
The Church was keenly aware of the power of relics. They intended to deny their adversaries any such power. And that’s why heretics were burned, and their ashes dumped in the river to wash away and vanish entirely.
Book burning followed the same logic, plus it added dramatic visual flair and ensured that there were fewer sources texts for furtive reproduction later.
The Tudor monarchs followed this precedent because it was grimly effective.
Outsourcing censorship to the private sector
Control of the press became exponentially more difficult after Henry VIII. The risk of underground publication of forbidden texts and scriptures was high. True believers in both Protestant and Catholic camps saw the value in cranking out publications to support their cause. The number of tracts and pamphlets skyrocketed. Both sides were printing missals, hymnals and prayer books.
What Queen Mary needed was tighter control of the printing industry. But this was a bad look for a queen who was known to favor the arts and sciences. She wanted to be seen as moderate, restoring the status quo after her tempestuous father’s rash decision.
That’s why Mary made a decision that many modern CEOs make today when they hire McKinsey: she outsourced a distasteful process to a private firm, and thereby managed to put some distance between her and the company that did the dastardly deed.
To use contemporary terminology, outsourcing to the private sector gave Mary plausible deniability.
The Tudor monarchs preferred not to leave fingerprints on the weapon. That’s why Mary turned to the Worshipful Company of Stationers to do the dirty work.
This had the side effect of concentrating England’s entire printing industry in the hands of one company.
The origin of the term “copyright”
The Worshipful Company of Stationers was first organized in 1403 as a guild for the skilled laborers who created and sold illuminated manuscripts. After 1470, the Stationers expanded their remit to include printing in the City of London, and eventually to book imports.
Over time, Stationers compiled a unique data asset that would later proved very useful for control over the publishing profession. Under Henry VIII, the King’s council maintained no central registry that listed all of the works that had been approved by the King for publication. Since the authority to grant such approval was dispersed among several councilors and courts, the English government had no easy way to compile such a list.
But the Stationers already had a long tradition of tracking this information.
According to the Stationers’ Charter, whenever a member of the guild asserted ownership over a book and obtained the right to publish it from the Company, no other member had “the right to copy” it. This is considered by some scholars as the origin of the term copyright, although the meaning is quite different from the concept of copyright that would be introduced a century later.
To qualify for this form of copyright, a member of the guild was obliged to pay a fee to record the title of the publication in a central registry that was maintained at the guild’s headquarters. By the time Mary reached the throne, the Guild maintained a list of every book published by every printer in London.
Under Queen Mary, copyright was granted not to protect the rights of an author: it was used as a way to maintain strict censorship over printed information.
Queen Mary’s quid pro quo
In 1557, when Queen Mary and King Phillip granted the guild a royal charter of incorporation to the Worshipful Company of Stationers, printed publications had long since eclipsed manual illuminated manuscripts in total volume.
Mary’s grant conferred a huge boon on the Stationers, giving them a royal monopoly over the lucrative business of book publishing for the entire kingdom. No other printer could lawfully compete.
But there was a catch. It had to do with the registry that was so fastidiously maintained by the guild. The company was obliged to serve as Mary’s information police force, on the hunt for heretical or seditious works. The registry provided an efficient way to identify and track down publishers who had previously printed works that Mary’s government found undesirable. The Stationers were also granted authority to search private premises and homes for banned publications.
Offending printers were seized by the Company and delivered to ecclesiastic courts. The Stationers used their monopoly to suppress dissenting views and eliminate works that were deemed heretical.
This was such an efficient mechanism for total control over printed information that Queen Elizabeth maintained it after Queen Mary died. She made just one change: instead of hunting down Protestants, now the Stationers would be obliged to hunt down Catholics, because Elizabeth reversed Mary’s attempt to restore Catholicism.
Subsequent monarchs found this arrangement so convenient that the book monopoly was grandfathered and carved out of the Statute of Monopolies, which otherwise eliminated most of the royal patents in 1624. The print monopoly endured for a further 71 years.
During the turbulent period following the English Reformation until the English Civil War, the Stationers played the ideological goon squad on behalf of the crown, empowered to seize books that violated the guidelines established by the church.
This meant that the Stationers took violent action against Catholics or Protestants, depending upon the preferences of the reigning Monarch. They made enemies on all sides.
By 1695, British nobles and gentry had grown weary of this game. The print monopoly’s conduct engendered such widespread ill will that the Stationers finally fell out of favor when it came time to renew their license.
John Locke lobbied against renewing the pre-publication censorship rule:
“I know not why a man should not have liberty to print whatever he would speak; and to be answerable for the one, just as he is for the other, if he transgresses the law in either. But gagging a man, for fear he should talk heresy or sedition, has no other ground than such as will make chains necessary, for fear a man should use violence if his hands were free, and must at last end in the imprisonment of all who you will suspect may be guilty of treason or misdemeanor”
The licensing act expired in 1695. The Stationers’ century-long monopoly over book publishing ended. No longer would the pre-publication censorship ban be enforced, nor were “heretical, seditious, schismatical, or offensive books” banned. British Catholics were no longer barred from printing their catechisms and prayer books.
Just 15 years later, Parliament went one step further by introducing the world’s first modern copyright act. It was a radical departure from the Tudor-era system of licenses, permission and letters patent. We will learn more about that in the next newsletter.
Note to readers: my travel schedule and some business deadlines prevent me from posting articles as often as I like. Bear with me. I’ll continue with this series as soon and as often as I can. The next articles in this series will cover some excellent topics: the birth of modern copyright in 1710; how copyright took root in the United States; how the US became the world’s most notorious pirate nation; and the evolution of modern copyright law. Then we will conclude with a series of articles that present copyright in the context of artificial intelligence.
Some readers have inquired about the images in my newsletter. I use Midjourney to generate these pictures. I was delighted by the unexpectedly weird gender-bending images that it provided for today’s newsletter. These are not directly relevant to Reverend Lee’s story, but I find them funny in a Dadaesque way.
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