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Aldus Manutius's Warning against the Printers of Lyon (1503)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: i _1503

Commentary on Aldus Manutius's Warning against the Printers of Lyon (1503)

Joanna Kostylo

University of Cambridge, UK


Please cite as:
Kostylo, J. (2008) ‘Commentary on Aldus Manutius's Warning against the Printers of Lyon (1503)', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. Counterfeit and plagiarism in the early years of printing

4. Privileges, devices and other instruments used by Aldo in his struggle against piracy

5. Who invented the cursive type?


1. Full title

Aldus Manutius's Warning against the Printers of Lyon

2. Abstract

This is a manifesto issued by Aldus Manutius to warn readers against the printers of Lyon who had been counterfeiting his editions of classic Greek and Roman authors. It is part of a series of complaints which Aldus submitted in Venice and Rome to have his works protected against piracy. The commentary describes the context in which Aldus took the decision to publish his manifesto. It argues that with the emergence of a book market, the problem of counterfeit and plagiarism became increasingly widespread but was not always viewed as disgraceful. Neither was there any established mechanism for the prosecution of offenders. The commentary investigates the concepts of originality and plagiarism in the context of the culture of copying and sharing texts, carried on from the manuscript age, and concludes that by trying to judge the cases of plagiarism during the Renaissance by our modern standards, we risk oversimplification, anachronism, and insensitivity to changes in the 'cultural meaning' of these concepts.


3. Counterfeit and plagiarism in the early years of printing
This is one of a series of complaints which Aldus Manutius (1449/50-1515), the famous Venetian scholar and printer, made against counterfeiters of his works between 1502 and 1507. Aldus arrived in Venice around 1490. His press was the first to use an italic type in 1501 and proved instrumental in allowing the proliferation of pocket classics for which he became well known throughout Europe. It is precisely because of his outstanding reputation and commercial success that Aldo fell prey to ruthless plagiarism.


In the earliest years of printing, the age of the recovery of the great Latin and Greek classics, the problem of plagiarism and the need for protection against it was not so pronounced. Printers, like the scribes before them, did not see any need to have a monopoly on the published text, as there was enough publishable material from the past available in manuscripts. Only when the book market expanded and the supply of unpublished material dried up, did the threat of unfair or illegal competition emerge, forcing printers to rush to apply for privileges to protect their rights. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that this was a general practice. In fact, only a small fraction of books with a particularly striking commercial value and destined for a refined and international readership were considered worthy of protection against counterfeiting and became the subject of privilege requests. Beneath this 'high circuit' of fast-selling elite titles protected by privileges ran a slow undercurrent of titles which received little protection, if any at all. Yet no degree of protection and control was enough, not even a request for a 'supranational' papal or imperial privilege, to save instant bestsellers such as Aldus Manutius's ‘popular’ pocket-size editions of classics from the greedy hands of counterfeiters.


Aldus's reputation as a businessman who introduced inexpensive books for mass circulation has been vastly overrated, for his elegant editions of learned works and classics were far from catering to 'popular' tastes. More accurately, he intended to promote a wider and more public use of the Greek and Latin classics, less tied up in scholarly speculations and humanist study. Yet he was fully aware of the revolution his octavo format was ushering onto the book market. Such a pocket size book could be read at leisure, he wrote to the humanist Marino Sanudo in a dedication of his edition of Horace (1501), encouraging him to read his books whenever he was free from political engagements. Similarly, he suggested to captain Bartolomeo d’Alviano that he could take such small-format books to the battlefield. A great demand for Aldine classics even among the less learned reading public is stated in Heinrich Glarean's letter to Zwingli of 19 October 1516, which reflects on how large quantities of genuine and imitated Aldines thrown upon the market had been caught up eagerly even by those too ignorant to understand them.


The first book published in a new format by Aldus Manutius was Virgil appearing in April 1501, followed by Horace, Juvenal, and many others. The same format and typeface was used to publish Cose volgari by Petrarch (1501) and Terze rime by Dante (1502). The success was immediate and print runs were very high, from 1500 to 3000 per edition at the time when the average output was 300 to 400 copies. Such success immediately attracted the attention of competitors and counterfeiters. In 1502, Manutius complained that a merchant, probably Jordan von Dinslaken, was buying his books in bulk, exporting them to Germany and undercutting Aldo’s prices there. Also, it did not take long before Aldus's most successful titles appeared in cheap and hastily produced editions in Venice, Brescia, and Lyon. In his supplication, submitted on 17 October 1502, Manutius informed the Venetian Senate about some of the tricks counterfeiters employed to circumvent Venetian privileges, such as printing a book in Brescia with a colophon for Florence, or in Lyon with a colophon for Venice (see i_1502). It is in this context that Manutius came to the groundbreaking decision to protect his production by requesting a monopoly over the entire Greek and Latin cursive typesets rather than applying for standard copyright privileges for individual titles. He had already secured a twenty-year monopoly for printing in Greek typeface on 25 February 1496. In March 1501, again, he petitioned for a ten-year privilege for the exclusive use of his new chancery cursive type to produce books in octavo format. In October 1502, in order to receive better protection against the counterfeiting of his books in Brescia, Lyon and Breslau, and especially to ensure full profit from his invention of Greek and italic fonts, Aldus sent a petition to the Venetian Senate to reconfirm the privileges previously granted by the Collegio (see i_1502). In his petition, after describing the merits of his new Greek and Latin cursive types and recounting the injuries done to him by the Breslau edition, the counterfeited imprints from Florence, and the Lyonnais imitations, he requested the Senate to grant him an exclusive monopoly on the manufacture of his special types and to prohibit the counterfeiting of his editions in Italy or the sale of such counterfeits imported from abroad, on pain of the loss of the labour on the books and a fine of two hundred ducats for each offence. The monopoly was granted and further confirmed by a ducal letter issued a few weeks later (14 November 1502). The same year, Aldus obtained a privilege for his Latin and Greek types from Pope Alexander VI. Initially it was granted for ten years and valid throughout Italy. The privilege was renewed in January 1513 by Julius II for a term of fifteen years, and again in November 1513 by Leo X. Its area of application was extended to all of Christendom. Apart from these general grants, Aldus secured several individual privileges for single titles, including the works of St Catherine of Siena, the Christian Poets and Pietro Bembo's Asolani. "Considering the reputation which these privileges have won for the Venetian government as an enlightened body, and the political leverage which Aldus could command, he would seem to have been one of the best protected publishers of his time." But was he? The sheer number and repetitive nature of these grants cast a shadow of doubt over the 'enlightened' nature of the entire system.


4. Privileges, devices and other instruments used by Aldo in his struggle against piracy
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, privileges were granted liberally and indiscriminately but there is little evidence that they were effective. There were no statutory laws safeguarding the rights of the authors and printers, nor an official licensing system. Some degree of governmental supervision of the system was introduced in 1517 when the Council of Ten, responsible for state security, initiated a series of regulatory acts to control the book market (see i_1517). Even then, the state administration would lack the appropriate apparatus to enforce these rules. The printing industry had grown up too quickly for the regulations which began to be implemented on a more regular basis only after 1549 when the Guild of Printers and Booksellers was established (see i_1549). All the records of Venetian applications for privileges provide for the prosecution of counterfeiters, referring to various magistracies such as the Avvogadori de Comun responsible for public order or the Signori di Notte, a body charged with investigating, judging and sentencing crimes in Venice. However, to what extent could privilege holders invoke the law to prosecute alleged piracies of their works?


The Venetian archival records for prosecution are hopelessly scattered and incomplete, and only occasionally do they provide information on legal action taken against offenders. On 22 September 1552, for example, the Tribunal of the Executors against Blasphemy (Esecutori Contro la Bestemmia) fined Curtio Troian da Navò and Grovita Rapicio of Brescia 15 and 10 ducats respectively, for having issued Gaurico's treatise on astrology "con grata et privilegio" without having actually obtained the necessary concessions.


Privileges added prestige to a book and were often forged. In Strasbourg, Walther Ryff, physician and author, and the printer Balthasar Beck forged an imperial privilege in several books in 1540, for which they were summoned to a hearing before the city council.


Apparently, Troian da Navò must have been a regular offender, for already in 1540, the Esecutori condemned a book which he had published, containing poems by Francesco Berni, as "inhoneste, et di pessimo exemplo." Having prohibited the printing and selling of the scandalous volume in the Venetian territories, the Esecutori read their proclamation to various printers. In 1590, they brought legal action against a musician Zuan Battista Rizzo for selling illegally "alcune stanze, dialoghi, et motteti" printed in Treviso, without a licence in Venice. They ordered Zuan Battista to present all the illegal books to their office. If he refused, he was to be exiled from Venice for five years and required to pay 100 ducats to the Arsenale (the seat of the Venetian navy). However, Zuan Battista obviously failed to comply with the request, for two years later again he had been summoned by the Esecutori. Having taken into consideration his "poverty", the Esecutori accepted in his name only 10 ducats and shortened the term of exile to one year. Thus while the official punishment for transgressions could be quite harsh, it was rarely executed. There was no obvious system for applying sanctions against counterfeiters. The fact that there was no established practice to publicise privileges, or record them in a systematic way, did not help. It was difficult to know which books were protected and which were not, even for the Venetian Collegio itself.


On 7 March 1498, for example, Gabriele da Brasichella, head of a company of printers received a ten-year privilege for publishing four Greek works. As justification for his request Gabriele stated that he wished "to print in Greek and Latin in this renowned city using a most beautiful and new invention." Upon examination, his "invention" is seen to be a close imitation of the second Aldine Greek font. As we know, Aldus had received a twenty-year privilege in 1496, and he must have opposed Gabriele’s enterprise from the outset. Indeed Gabriele requested reconfirmation of his privilege some two months later (20 May 1498), claiming that his enterprise was already menaced. Gabriele probably had Aldus in mind, but no name was mentioned and the councillors reconfirmed the privilege without taking into account Aldus's monopoly. This is just one example of numerous claims and counter-claims in this period.


Sometimes printers advertised the fact that they had been awarded privileges. One of the earliest attempts was made in 1488 by Bettino da Trezzo who decided to versify his privilege and include it in the Milanese edition of his Letilogia. More typically, printers advertised their privileges with the formula "Cum priuilegio" on the title-page and went to great pains to enlist severe punishments for infringing the copyright, ranging from high fines and confiscation of the books to banishment and prison. The 'threatening' style of these advertisements was not taken seriously. Another way to fight piracy was to publish a warning against counterfeits in the preface or dedication of a book. It was used, for example, by Martin Luther in 1525, after a compositor stole part of the manuscript of his Bible translations and had it printed for sale in Nuremberg. When his official complaint to the city council of Nuremberg proved ineffectual, he prefixed a preface to his Auslegung der Episteln und Evangelien (1525), in which he likened the offending printers to highwaymen and thieves (see d_1525 and d_1541).


One of the devices which Aldus used to identify and safeguard his own editions was the distinctive mark of the anchor and dolphin which became known throughout Europe. This provided little discouragement to Florentine counterfeiters who ventured to reproduce Manutius's device in their forgeries. Selling books or works of art with false signature marks was widespread at the time. The most famous instance of a complaint against this practice was Albrecht Dürer's complaint to the City Council of Nuremberg which issued a notice stating that "a foreigner is taking the liberty of selling pictures bearing Dürer’s mark, but these are counterfeits; he shall be compelled to remove all the marks, or everything shall be confiscated" (see i_1504). In France, a royal edict of 1539 warned unsuspecting customers not to purchase inferior texts published with false printer’s marks. There is no case of legal action taken by printers against those who forged their signature known from the Venetian documents, but by 1518 Aldus was lamenting in the preface to his edition of Livy:

"Lastly, I must draw the attention of the students to the fact that some Florentine printers, seeing that they could not equal our diligence in correcting and printing, have resorted to their usual artifices. To Aldus's Institutiones Gramaticae, printed in their offices, they have affixed our well known sign of the Dolphin wound round the Anchor. But they have so managed that any person who is the least acquainted with the books of our production, cannot fail to observe that this is an impudent fraud. For the head of the Dolphin is turned to the left, whereas that of ours is well known to be turned to the right."

Already in 1502 the problem of counterfeiting seemed to be serious and Manutius had to repeat his petition for the monopoly on printing with an italic fount. But the affirmation of the large monopolies granted by the Venetian Senate and the theoretically more powerful and extensive privilege granted by the Pope did not prevent these piracies from repeating themselves. By March 1503 Aldus had made his mind up to change tactics.


As a prominent printer, he had various means at disposal to fight for his rights. This time he chose to warn the readers against the Lyonnais counterfeiters by publishing a manifesto on a large foglio sheet to be distributed abroad and affixed in public. In his Warning, Aldus speaks of his ambition to bring the best editions of the famous classics to the learned world and enumerates the obstacles he has encountered in fulfilling his hopes. He particularly denounces the printers of Lyon, whose imitations of his Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Martial, Lucan and the Roman elegists Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius and Terence were forgeries of the poorest quality. "The lettering, upon closer inspection, betrays a certain Frenchiness”, he complained, "in the same way upper case letters are misshapen." They were produced on foul paper, "of a strange odour", and with many errors. He takes great pains to enlist them one by one and compare the differences between the spurious and the genuine texts. He even furnishes a list of typographical errors in the false texts. "I have provided these details", Aldus concludes in the colophon, "so that the prospective customers will not be cheated and have the means to distinguish the faulty forgeries from the genuine Venetian editions."


Aldus's attempt to undercut his competition backfired. Duly admonished, his rivals wasted little time in availing themselves of Aldus's publication of their errata as a guide to correct their errors and carry on producing new and 'improved' counterfeit impressions of Aldine editions. Such audacity leaves no doubt that the privileges in Italy, whether granted by the Venetian Senate or by the Pope, were hardly respected abroad and offered no protection against fierce and unfair competition. The printed warning to the reader might have helped Aldo to protect his reputation as a publisher and scholar and to ensure that more cultivated readers would chose to buy the original, not spurious editions. But it did little to prevent the repetition of piracies, which continued in Lyon and Florence.


The episode of Lyonnais piracies also provides an important precedent which engendered a dispute over priority – a fundamental question in the world of the visual arts and mechanical inventions. Who was the first to invent the cursive type or to begin to use it?


5. Who invented the cursive type?
In the early years, printers would employ skilled specialists to cast founts of type for them. A Greek fount posed particular problems and required a competent type-cutter to design it. Similarly, the elegance of the cursive type depended on the skill with which this cutting was done. During this period, many experimented on various type-founts. Aldus himself commissioned and experimented with several type-founts in three different languages. It was Francesco Griffo, a skilled type-cutter from Bologna who appears to have solved and designed the most elegant and successful Greek and Latin cursives for Aldo. His contribution was fundamental. But it was Aldus, not Griffo, who secured his exclusive right to use the new typeface. "No one but him may make, reproduce, or print books with his Greek and Latin chancery types and any other he might devise in the future" – the senatorial privilege emphasized. Griffo must have been furious. By obtaining a privilege that outlawed all imitations of his Greek and italic types, Aldus had effectively prevented Griffo from selling his most original and fashionable designs to other printers. These designs must have already been passed from hand to hand, judging by the speed with which the imitations of Aldine cursive were emerging from several different quarters. It was probably Griffo who supplied an Italian emigrant, Balthazar de Gabiano with the fount with which the early imitations of Aldo were printed in Lyons. In 1503, a printer Gerolamo Soncino of Fano, seriously affected by the competition with Manutius, contested his rights to the cursive types. In the dedication of his edition of Petrarch to Cesare Borgia, Soncino disclosed that he had relied on the expertise of Griffo who deserved the real credit for the invention and design of the Aldine type:

"For he not only knows how to cut the form of letters called cursive or chancery, which neither does Aldo Romano nor others who cunningly have tried to adorn themselves with the plumes of others, but this very Messer Francesco first invented and designed, and it was he who cut all the fonts of letters from which the said Aldo ever printed, as well as the present font with a grace and beauty that speak for themselves."

Griffo himself made claims to invention in an edition of Petrarch’s Canzonieri, which he published in 1516. Apart from Griffo, at least two other contemporaries, Filippo Giunti and Ludovico degli Arrighi made claims to be the inventors of the cursive style or at least to have been the first to use it. In Florence, Filippo Giunti, member of a powerful Florentine press dynasty, had been publishing plagiarised Aldine editions under his own name, a fact which he did not even try to hide. In the preface to the 1503 edition of the Roman elegists Catullus, Tibullus and Propertius, he announced that these texts “had recently been much emended by the most learned Aldus Manutius and were now revised by Benedictus of Florence.” This was only an overture to a long campaign of forging Aldus’s texts, which Giunti loudly and proudly orchestrated. This time, Aldus tried to take action against counterfeiters by means of a lawsuit in 1507. While the records of this important press trial have not survived, in 1517, Filippo Giunti, the son of Bernardo, appealed for the removal of a sentence of banishment passed against his father by the Signori di Notte. The charge had been infringement of the Aldine privileges which had lapsed with the holder’s death in 1515. According to Martin Lowry, who gave a detailed account of these events, Aldus’s action must have been at least partially successful. Even if Giunti did not stop printing in cursive, he does seem to have been careful to avoid Aldine titles following this period.


The privileges he secured from the Venetian Senate were naturally valid only within the jurisdiction of the authority which granted them. Outside Venice the same books could be reprinted freely. To forestall the pirates, the prudent Manuzio obtained a privilege from Pope Alexander VI (February 1496), which, in theory at least, extended his monopoly rights over both his Greek and cursive type beyond Venice. Yet even the threat of excommunication and eternal damnation with which the popes sought to enforce their indults did little to deter offenders. The ‘universal’ coverage of the papal privileges was considered to be of questionable validity not only in Florence but also in France where the impious typographers of Lyon had been reproducing Manutius’s editions.


If Aldus was printing “with God’s help”, as he states in his 1502 petition, so could have Giunti. In July 1514, Filippo together with his brother Lucantonio Giunti challenged the monopoly over Greek and italic types which Pope Leo X had just reconfirmed in favour of Aldus. Instead, they sought to obtain a similar ‘universal’ privilege with the backing of the Florentine Council of Eight and the ambassador Francesco Vettori in Rome. “Aldus may continue to delude himself that he is the inventor of the Greek types,” argued the Florentines, but it is Florence where the first Greek books and letters were created and much earlier than in Venice; and the chancery cursive type has also been in use for many years in this [Florentine] Dominion with great honour by our citizen Lucantonio Giunti, who had exercised the art of printing in Venice for many yeas and had published many more books than Aldo Romano. It is only because the conditions and quality of printing in Venice had gone so bad that Giunti was prompted to abandon that city. All the more, Venice had no claim or priority over the invention. The pope ought to consider whether his beloved Florentines should suffer such injustice from Venice and Aldo who were undermining Florentine liberty and commerce.

There are two interpretations of this primacy claim: either Florence had been indeed the first to print with Greek characters, or the Florentines expected primacy over Venice regardless by counting on the Florentine sympathies of the Medici Pope. On 20 July, after weeks of bargaining with the Pope, Vettori finally replied that Leo X was willing to concede the privilege to Giunti as long as they were prepared to print in a style marginally different from Aldo: “modifying only little things will be sufficient”, Vettori reassured them. Obviously the Pope sought to satisfy both parties yet not to shatter his own reputation by granting two conflicting monopolies. The question of who should be credited with the invention of the types or whose edition would qualify as the original was not even an issue.


The surplus of pirated incorrect editions which flooded the book market in those years raised the controversial question of what counted as counterfeit and plagiarism, an issue which does not seem obvious even in modern legal practice. What constituted an ‘accurate’ and ‘genuine’ edition and what was a counterfeit copy? As the Giunti’s case demonstrates, it was easy to make some slight changes in typeface or to add a small amount of text or a new introduction and then claim that a work was new.


The idea of originality has its own history. By trying to judge the cases of plagiarism during the Renaissance by modern standards, we risk oversimplification, anachronism, and insensitivity to changes in ‘cultural meaning’ of the concept of originality. The question needs to be placed in the double context of ideas of individual authorship and the rise of a book market. Under the market’s pressure to produce, and to produce quickly, plagiarism became increasingly necessary and frequent but not always shameful. In the age of the recovery of great Latin and Greek classics, writers preached and practised ‘creative imitation’, while scholars edited, translated and ‘appropriated’ information from earlier treatises and reproduced it virtually verbatim with a good conscience in order to be useful to their readers. In ancient Greece and Rome for instance, some playwrights and philosophers were doing the same. In other words, it is difficult to discuss originality and plagiarism without introducing double standards; what counts as creative imitation for one writer, may be considered theft by another. With the advent of printing, the issue became even further complicated by a persisting assumption carried on from the manuscript age that copying another man’s work was more of a favour than an injury. Once a book had been published it was often regarded as public property and printers freely reproduced the same edition, as was the case of the Giunti who proudly counterfeited Manuzio’s works.


Printing reasserted the notion of the book as an exchangeable commodity but it would take until the middle of the eighteenth century before the assumption that the work of the mind should be considered the property of its author began to take shape. However, long before any such copyright legislation, we can find some sixteenth-century authors and editors claiming that garbled and unauthorised reprints of their works were ruining their professional, personal and literary reputation. Characteristically, in his complaints against counterfeiters Aldus lamented that he had been wronged not because he was the real inventor of the new type but because Giunti and others were ruining his professional reputation. It is in this context that we ought to view contemporary writers accusing one another of plagiarism or indeed ‘theft.’ This concept was slow to develop but it did find expression in contemporary documents which refer to thieves (‘rubatori’) of ideas, as Pietro Aretino wrote of “Vergilio che svaligiò Omero” and “Sanazaro che l’accocò a Vergilio”. Besides frequent references to those who try to steal the fruits of others’ labour we find accusations against parrots, magpies and crows who adorn themselves with the feathers of others. These were the popular contemporary metaphors for our modern idea of intellectual property and plagiarism.


The world of the emerging book market was ruthless: "a sinister underground" of agents and spies sniffing out secrets to rush cheap copies onto the market before the genuine version had the chance to appear. Those petitioning for privileges to protect their imprints often spoke of "the treacherous rage of competition which riddles this wretched profession." The bookseller Bernardino Rasma astutely described the situation in his petition of 1496:

"a pernicious and hurtful corruption has crept into the midst of the merchant printers of this glorious city, whereby not only in times past but now-a-days many of them are undone. For when one of them shall have set himself to produce a book of rare beauty – which entails the absorption of all his capital in it – should his brother merchants come to hear of it, they use every cunning device to steal the proofs of the new work from the hands of the pressmen, and set to, with many men and many presses, to print the book before the original designer of the book can finish his edition, which, when it is ready for issue, finds the market spoiled by the pirated edition."

In the world of the arts, things were not any different. In his Stories of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors, Giorgio Vassari recorded Michelangelo’s wry comment on a painting in which “many of the details were copied from other pictures.” “At the Day of Judgment, when every body takes back its own members, I don’t know what that picture will do, because it will have nothing left.” These were the ‘dark ages’ in the history of intellectual property.

6. References

Brown, H. F., The Venetian Printing Press 1469-1800: An Historical Study Based upon Documents for the Most Part Hitherto Unpublished (London: John C. Nimmo, 1891)

Castellani, C., I privilegi di stampa e la proprieta letteraria in Venezia: Dalla introduzione della stampa nella citta fin verso la fine del secolo XVIII (Venezia: Fratelli Visentini, 1888)

Didot, A.-F., Alde Manuce et l’Hellenisme a Venise (Paris: D’ Ambroise Firmin-Didot, 1875)

Gerulaitis, L. V., Printing and Publishing in fifteenth-century Venice (Chicago: American Library Association, 1976)

Infelise, M., "Baldassare Gabiano", DBI, sub voce; idem., "Aldo Manutio", in DBI, sub voce.

Lowry, M., The world of Aldus Manutius: business and scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979)

Renouard, A.-A., Annales de l’Imprimerie des Alde, ou histoire des trois Manuce et de leurs editions, 2 vols (Paris: Renouard, 1803)

Shaw, D. J., "The Lyons counterfeit of Aldus’s Italic type: A new chronology", in The Italian book 1465-1800: Studies presented to Denis E. Rhodes, ed. by D. V. Reidy (London, 1993), 117-133

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