Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: i _1549

Commentary on The Decree of the Council of Ten establishing the Guild of Printers and Booksellers

Joanna Kostylo
Cambridge University

1. Full title
2. Abstract
3. Printing trade before regulation
4. The establishment of the guild and its role
5. Copyright and the Guild
6. Bibliography

1. Full title
The Decree of the Council of Ten establishing the Guild of Printers and Booksellers

2. Abstract
Decree chartering the establishment of the Guild of Printers and Booksellers. It provided that all those concerned with printing or selling books should join in the corporation, which would restore order within the trade and offer some assistance to the Three Deputies over Heresy in policing the authors and printers of unauthorized writings. In addition to providing for censorship, the establishment of the Guild was also a further measure (after Decrees of 1517, 1527 and 1545) to regulate the printing trade in order to restore the commercial importance of the Venetian book trade by standardizing and improving its procedures. However, the commentary argues that the Guild's regulations were not rigidly enforced and the censoring of the book trade continued to rely upon the governmental decrees and proclamations. In fact, the Guild was not granted the exclusive control over published works until 1603 when it finally secured the right to grant and register copyrights.

3. Printing trade before regulation

Venice had numerous guilds (arti) which regulated the conduct of various professions and trades since the Middle Ages (see i_1474).  Each of these arti had its own charter and legislation regarding fees, contracts, working conditions, and the duration of apprenticeship, among many other details. But the new art of printing had grown up too quickly to establish regulatory procedures that usually controlled medieval crafts. The first twenty years of printing in Venice were completely free of legal regulations. As a new trade, printing developed spontaneously, rapidly and liberally without interference from the government which did not seem to be concerned with systematic control of the book production. Indeed, the existing guilds resented the freedom of printers and what they considered unfair competition from them. In Genoa, for example, the guild of copyists (scribes) petitioned to the council of (12 May 1472) to restrain "strangers who print volumes" and to enjoin German printers from producing breviaries, missals, books of hours and grammars.  In 1477-78, the illuminators of Toulouse protested to their city council against the printing of books, since printers had failed to offer them work.

The ensuing freedom furthered the rapid growth of the presses. In 1500 there were in Venice alone about two hundred competing printers. The absence of regulations encouraged a bewildering range of different men (and some women) from a variety of social, geographical and professional backgrounds to enter the profession. Nicholas Jenson, for example, was a Frenchman, probably a metalworker by profession; Aldus Manutius, born near Rome, began his career as a teacher. Among those who petitioned for printing privileges in these years were literary men, priests, tax collectors, physicians, musicians, choristers, perfumers and bakers. In 1474, Pietro Fornaio, a baker, was selling his printing equipment to a Venetian publisher ("mercator librorum") Uldericus Fortunio de Alemania at a price of 10 soldi, 16 parvi.  In 1543, a perfumer, Biagio Perugino (Paternostraio), made a successful privilege request for printing two works by Pietro Aretino.  As Erasmus sourly remarked at the time, it was much easier to become a printer than a baker.  Among these newcomers to the trade were also the unqualified dilettantes or the unscrupulous counterfeiters, the mere adventures who aimed at cheap workmanship and high prices and produced books of inferior quality. Their controversial business practices contributed to the decline of the Venetian printing industry and signaled the necessity of some supervision. Another important factor in the awakening of censorial attitudes towards the press was the growing concern over the spread of heretical and seditious writings. Soon after the invention of printing, the Church recognized the potential danger of press, especially on the eve of Luther's Reformation, and had begun to pressure Venice and other Italian states to impose a close surveillance on printed matter (see i_1487).

In response to these economic, political and religious pressures, the Venetian government developed two institutions for regulating the press. One was a system of printing privileges whereby printers could secure an exclusive right to print and sell a particular text. Privilege system served the government as an instrument of economic control and was developed to control competitive pressures within the printing market in order to encourage commercial and intellectual activity by protecting the interests of printers and authors (see i_1517). Another institution was licensing which developed as a mechanism of ideological control, safeguarding the Venetian State from sedition or heresy. It was formally inaugurated in 1527 in a proclamation that provided for a licensing system (see i_1527).

These two mechanisms of regulatory control relied upon a sporadic use of governmental decrees and privileges and were part of an imperfect and ineffective system. There were no statutory laws safeguarding the rights of the authors and printers, nor official censorial routine. So, by the mid sixteenth century printing in Venice remained still largely an unregulated craft. The continued abuse of the privilege system, spread of piracy and licentiousness of the press made it increasingly clear that a more effective and systematic way of controlling and regulating the book trade was necessary.

4. The establishment of the guild and its role

On 18 January 1549 (1548 m.v.) the Venetian Council of Ten decreed that all those concerned with printing or selling books should join in the guild and committed the executive (the Proveditori di Commun) to promulgate appropriate bye-laws which would regulate the new corporation. In the preamble of this law, the councilors complained that "there are many problems that occur every day with regards to the printing that need to be amended", which brings discredit upon Venice, and ruin and disgrace upon the art, and acknowledged that it is difficult to redeem these problems without a proper guild system, as "there is no one who represents the aforesaid art, nor who is responsible for it, so it happens that everyone does as he pleases amidst extreme disorder and confusion."

This legislation was the first attempt to organize the printing and publishing trade into a closed corporation though it gave little attention to its application. It was not implemented until 1566 when the Council of Ten passed a reinforcing legislation calling once more upon the Proveditori di Comun to proceed to the execution of its orders. The guild might have existed in some less official form but it was not forced into a rigid guild regime until 14 March 1567 when the Proveditori finally approved the bye-laws of the new guild. These bye-laws (Mariegole) are preserved at the Museum Correr in Venice together with the Minute-book of the guild (see the Statutes of the Venetian Guild of Printers and Booksellers, Venice, 1549). By receiving a corporate status, the Venetian printers and booksellers were granted privileges enjoyed by other guilds: rights of property ownership, control over apprenticeship and workmanship and protection from non-members. In addition, the Mariegole provided detailed regulations covering a variety of matters, including the meeting place, election of the guild officials, judicial procedures, apprenticeships, and relations between print masters and patrons. By the rules of the Mariegole, the guild was to meet in the church of SS. Giovanni and Paolo (Capitolo I), every year, on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist the whole college of printers and booksellers shall elect, by box and ballot, a prior, two councilors and six assessors (Capitolo II); and two-thirds of the members were necessary to form a quorum, and every motion required the support of two-thirds of those present before it could pass. (Capitoli III, X). The sixth close in the Mariegole provided for the election of a secretary to keep the minute-book of the chapters of the guild and the eight clause ruled that the prior should keep the accounts of the guild. 
The main aim of the new Guild of Printers and Booksellers was to assist the government and the Church with suppression of heretical literature. Decree of 1549 emphasized that the establishment of the Guild was necessary, "firstly for the honour of God, and of religion" and acknowledged that some assistance ought to be given to the Three Savii Sopra l'Heresia (Three Deputies over Heresy), a new magistracy established in 1547, in order to police the authors and printers of unauthorized writings. In fact, only a year earlier a controversy ensued between Venetian printers and the government when the Council of Ten authorized, under increased pressure from Rome, the first Venetian Index of Prohibited Books. Reacting to the discovery of the large cache of contraband books, the CX on 18 July 1548 ordered bookmen and others holding anti-Catholic books to present them to the Three Deputies over Heresy. The decree alarmed the bookmen because it authorized the Holy Office to search out and destroy heretical books. On 24 July 1548, Tomasso Giunti presented to the lay deputies a memorandum that criticized the decree for giving the Roman Inquisitors a free hand to search bookshops not only Protestant books but many ancient non-Christian books and modern pagan, Mohammedan, and Hebrew authors, which were extensively used by humanist scholars, philosophers, astrologers, physicians, and linguists. Obviously, the printers were not just concerned about the potential threat to scholarship from censorship but their commercial interests. The printers succeeded; the decree was ignored, and the Holy Office continued to conduct limited investigations upon receipt of denunciations. The Council of Ten answered the objections of the bookmen by authorizing the drafting of the first Venetian Index. It banned the opera omnia of 47 authors, the vast majority of whom were northern Protestants. 

In addition to providing for censorship, the establishment of the Guild aimed to restore the commercial importance of the Venetian book trade and to improve declining quality of Venetian imprints by creating more orderly procedures. The Venetian authorities sought to assemble all master booksellers and printers in Venice into a closed corporation in order to regulate the entry into profession and to improve workmanship and professional standing within the trade. However, although intended to be obligatory on all printers and booksellers in Venice, the membership of the guild was not rigidly enforced. As Brown estimated, there were at least one hundred and fifty presses at work in Venice at the end of the sixteenth century but only half of those (c. 75) were registered with the Guild.  Throughout the sixteenth century, the leadership of the Guild continued to complain against those who are not matriculated yet continue to "exercise the art of bookmen and go on establishing shops, warehouses, and bookstalls not being suitable for this profession."  Nevertheless, the guild managed to exercise some level of control and limit the proliferation of presses outside the guild system by issuing (or refusing) licenses and privileges for the publication of acceptable books. When in 1578 a musician Pasqualin Savioni applied for the licence to print music, the guild refused to grant him a printing license on the grounds that being an oboe player was not skilled enough for the task of a printer. 

The Guild's censorship was strongly linked with the economic interests of the guild members who sought to protect their businesses by limiting the number of master printers and presses and putting restrictions on the importation of books from abroad. Beyond setting standards and practices, guild statutes formed protectionist barriers for trades in competition with ‘foreigners' that is non-members. The provision of 1571 of the Guild's bye-laws ruled that five proctors of the guild should be nominated to watch over the rights of the guild and to see that those rights were not infringed by printers or booksellers who were not enrolled. Another measure taken under the priorate of Francesco Rampazzetto decreed that that no one who is not a member of the guild may set up a printing press nor open a bookshop, nor exercise any of the functions of bookseller or printer unless he has served five years' apprenticeship in Venice, and afterwards served as workman for three years in the city. Even stricter restrictions were applied to foreigners. Raising international competition was invoked to justify these measures and the Senate approved them to appease the guild's masters.
5. Copyright and the Guild

The establishment of the Guild of Printers (Stationers' Hall) and its relationship with the government (Crown) occupies a particularly important place in the history of the development of copyright in early modern England (see uk_1557). There were two parallel systems of press regulation in England: the printing privileges based on the royal prerogative (the Crown) and the Stationers' Hall system, based on the by-laws of the guild. Roughly, it has been argued that the tension between these two proprietary models for protecting published works was largely responsible for the evolution of copyright and prefigured the introduction of the Statute of Anne of 1710.  Following this line of argument, similar explanations have been advanced with regards to the Venetian system whereby the tensions between the Venetian guilds and the government led to the 1474 Venetian Statute on Industrial Brevets which inaugurated "the first modern patent system".  In addition to overdrammatizing the significance of the 1474 Statute, this interpretation oversimplifies the relation between the Venetian state and the guilds in order to favour a public choice explanation to various important moments in the history of patents, including the Venetian episode of 1474.

There are a number of reasons to be skeptical about such a simplistic and overoptimistic interpretation of the Venetian institutions. In contrast to early modern England, where the strong organization of the Stationers' Company was granted exclusive control over printing by the Royal Charter of 1557  (see uk_1557), and was able to enforce corporate control with success, in sixteenth-century Venice, the government had never explicitly bestowed such an exclusive right to jurisdiction and had often involve itself extensively and intensely in the control of the book trade. Thus while the Guild claimed jurisdiction over all printers and booksellers in Venice and asserted the right of the corporation to regulate all maters relating to printing in Venice, in reality, The Venetian guildsmen would receive legal support for their internal decisions only by the confirmation of the Council of Ten, the Provveditori di Comun and other magistracies involved in supervising the trades. The guild assumed some of the responsibility for licensing and issuing privileges after 1603 when the Senate passed General Press Reform. It ruled that henceforth only the Guild would grant copyrights and ruled that no one may put a book on the market until he registered copyrighted works with the Guild and deposited one copy at the Library of Saint Mark (see i_1603).
The practice of registering a manuscript copy with the Guild in order to obtain license is another institution "from which modern copyright is the direct descendant."  A guild member would secure his license to print a text by registering a manuscript copy with the guild leadership and paying a registration fee. In Venice, the institution of entry registration was not immediately associated with the Guild but with the Executors over Heresy who were to keep register of every licensed book in order to improve who a pre-publication censorship of heretical writings. Echoing some of the wording of 1549 Decree, on 17 September 1566, the Council of Ten ruled that

Seeing that the duty of punishing those who print or sell books without a license, and books prohibited by our laws, and books printed in Venice with a false place of printing, lies with the Esecutori contro la Bestemmia, but that they cannot perform their duties because they have no notice of the licenses which are granted, or because printers forge the words con licentia, it is decreed that all those who obtain licenses from the Chiefs of the Ten and from the Senate shall, before they print the work, take those licenses to the office of the Esecutori contro la Bestemmia, and there they shall be registered in a special volume, free of charge.

Thus in theory, the register kept by the Esecutori and since 1603 by the Guild ought to record every book licensed and published in Venice. However, there is little evidence that the issued licenses were registered. The privileges found in the archival sources account for only a tiny percentage of the licensed titles. The law of 1562 was evaded partly due to cumbersome procedures of the Venetian censorship machinery (see i_1527).

The institution of registration was to improve pre-publication censorship but would also eventually standardize the custom of granting copyrights. It has been assumed that this in turn would give rise to modern copyright. It is clear that initially the guild's licenses to exclusive right to market a manuscript was not originally seen as the sort of personal property right that we associate with modern copyright. Nevertheless, as Patterson has observed, analyzing the entries in the Stationers' Register between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, a subtle conceptual change did occur in the way that booksellers had began to think of their ‘copies' or ‘books': more as private property than a privilege to print.  Such an analysis is not possible in the Venetian case as there are no extant Registers of the Guild surviving in the Venetian archives.

It could be argued that the professionalisation of the book trade and the exclusionary politics of the Guild towards non-members took away the author's control over his text to a much greater extent than in the earlier pre-guild period. The concept of an author owning a work did not quite fit the Guild system, which made no distinction between privileges granted to authors and licenses granted to guildsmen. In fact, the latter were closely followed the model of monopoly grants conferred by the Venetian Senate to favored printers, which would eventually lead to internal trade struggles between the monopolist who gained control of whole sectors of publishing and smaller publishers who could not secure such monopolies. It was within the battlefield of the conflicting material interests of various lobby groups within and outside the Guild system that the recognition of the author's legal personality in Venetian law developed (see i_1781).
6. Bibliography

Brown, Horatio Fortini, The Venetian Printing Press 1469-1800: An Historical Study Based upon Documents for the Most Part Hitherto Unpublished (London: John C. Nimmo, 1891).
Chechetti, Bartolomeo. "Stampatori e librari", Archivio Veneto 29 (1885)
 Hirsch, Rudolf, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1967).
Infelise, Mario. "Gli editori veneziani del secondo Cinquecento", in Da Pozzo (ed.), La ragione e l'arte, 27-33.
Mackenney, Richard. Tradesmen and Traders: The World of the Guilds in Venice and Europe, c. 1250-c. 1650 (London: Croom Helm, 1987).