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The Humble Remonstrance of the Stationers' Company (1643)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)
Identifier: uk_1643


Commentary on the Humble Remonstrance of the Company of Stationers 1643
Ronan Deazley

School of Law, University of Birmingham, UK


Please cite as:
Deazley, R. (2008) ‘Commentary on the Humble Remonstrance of the Company of Stationers 1643', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. The Lapse of the Star Chamber Decree 1637

4. Benefits of Press Regulation and the Need for Propriety in Copies

5. The Regulation of the Press during the Interregnum

6. References


1. Full title
The Humble Remonstrance of the Company of Stationers to the High Court of Parliament (April 1643)


2. Abstract
A petition from the Company of Stationers to Parliament to introduce some form of legislative regulation of the press. The petition is significant in revealing the extent to which the Stationers depended upon the state to support the regulation of the book trade, as well as the nature of the various public and private interest arguments upon which they sought to base their claim. The commentary articulates the various arguments presented by the Stationers within their petition. The benefits of the legal regulation they suggested concerned not only the censorship and suppression of seditious and heretical texts, but also facilitated the advancement of learning and knowledge and the flourishing of the printing industry itself. In addition, the petition presents the figure of the ‘author' as reliant upon the benefit of his work, and that the ‘production of the Brain' was to be regarded as equivalent to any other commodity or chattel.


3. The Lapse of the Star Chamber Decree 1637
When the Star Chamber decree of 1637 lapsed following the abolishment of Star Chamber and the High Commission in July 1641,[1] the Company of Stationers, for the first time since the grant of their Charter in 1557, found themselves bereft of the crucial support of either crown or government in regulating the operation of their trade. As Siebert notes "the printers of the realm found themselves for the first time free to print what they pleased".[2] "By 1643" he continues:

"[T]he old monopolists and master printers had become desperate. Parliament had granted no redress. Journeymen were opening printing shops of their own. The old Star Chamber decrees regulating the number of apprentices and printing establishments were disregarded. Property in copies was nonexistent; piracy and counterfeiting were rampant; and entry in the Stationers' Register had dwindled."[3]

The response of the master stationers took the form of a pamphlet, of April 1643, petitioning Parliament to reintroduce some order into the trade: The Humble Remonstrance of the Company of Stationers.[4] With the stationers' petition to the Privy Council of 4 May 1586, the master stationers had begun to co-opt Elizabeth's (1533-1603) concerns about controversial religious texts in the pursuit of their own commercial interests. It was a strategy that they pursued even more overtly in their petition to parliament.[5]


4. Benefits of Press Regulation and the Need for Propriety in Copies
The stationers began by stressing the two main benefits to a well regulated press. The first, they argued lay in the "advancement of wholesome knowledge". In this regard, they continued, that "[t]he main care is to appoint severe Examiners for the licensing of things profitable, and suppressing of things harmfull"; where printing suffers by the neglect of government they warned that "errors and heresies abound". "[I]n matters of the Presses", they continued, "no man can so effectually prosecute, as Stationers themselves". The second benefit to press regulation, they suggested, lay in the flourishing of printing itself, and that because a more stable and profitable marketplace simultaneously served the interests of the public and the state. It was as a result of the lack of regulation throughout the last four years, they suggested, that "the affairs of the Presse have grown very scandalous and enormious". Without the reintroduction of controls over apprentices, the number of printing houses, and so on, "the Company of Stationers being like a feeld overpestered with too much stock, must needs grow indignent, and indigence must needs make it run to trespasses, and break out into divers unlawfull shifts; as Cattle use to do, when their pasture begins wholly to fail". "Where Delinquents grow too numerous", the stationers warned, "they grow out of the Eye of government"; "tis not possible", they continued, "that the State should any way haue the steering of the Presse, when Stationers cannot assist them therein". And so, they petitioned that parliament might "engage them to activity and alacrity in this service of the State".[6]


Naturally, such "service" in the interests of the state carried with it certain obligations on behalf of the state. To these observations the stationers added a commentary upon the need for "an orderly preservation of private interest", or "propriety in copies", providing various arguments to explain why providing such property in books was "a thing many wayes beneficiall to the state", and "different in nature from the engrossing or Monopolizing some other Commodities into the hands of a few". In the first place, books were not be considered as necessary in the same way as other "staple Commodities" such as food and clothes, many of them being "rarities onely and usefull only to a very few". Second, a "well regulated propriety of Copies ... makes Printing flourish, and Books more plentiful and cheap". Where all books free to the community of printers would bring in "confusion, and many other disorders both to the damage of the State and of the Company of Stationers", and would similarly inhibit the production of books "to the great obstruction of Learning, and suppression of many excellent and worthy peeces". Not only would "Confusion or Community of Copies" damage the operation of the stationers' marketplace, but it would also act as a "great discouragement to the Authors of Books", many of whom rely upon "the benefit of their Copies" to support their studies. Again, take this away, and "many pieces of great worth and excellence will be strangled in the womb, or never conceived at all for the future".[7] To these various arguments the petitioners added the following:


In many cases Community will [cause] injustice, as well as discouragement; for many Families have now their Lively-hoods by Assignments of Copies, some Orphans and Widows haue no other Legacies and Dowries to depend upon: and there is no reason apparent why the production of the Brain should not be assignable, and their interest and possession (being of more rare, sublime, and publicke use, demeriting the highest encouragement) held as tender in Law, as the right of any Goods or Chattells whatsoever.[8]


Here then is the "production of the Brain" as commodity, warranting the status of any other chattel, a commodity that can be assigned to another,[9] or left to a widow upon death. It is perhaps Bracha who writes about this aspect of the stationers' Remonstrance in the most insightful way:

"[O]ne cannot confer too much from lingual usage ... [however] [a]t this point in time, this is both a highly abstract argument and a particular kind of wishful thinking. The nuts and bolts of legal doctrines and practices were not even close to treating different forms of ownership in goods or chattels and copyright as being incidents of some overarching joint model of "property". At the same time, however, it is a significant moment in the history of copyright. It is the first substantial assertion that copyright should be conceptualized and practiced in this way."[10]


5. The Regulation of the Press during the Interregnum
Given the frustrations which parliament had suffered in its own attempts to censure and regulate the press, following the abolition of the High Commission and the Star Chamber in 1641,[11] it seems likely that the stationers' arguments as to the role which they could play in the "suppressing of things harmfull" to the state proved most influential in securing the Ordinance for the Regulation of Printing (14 June 1643). Certainly the preamble to the Ordinance suggests as much:

"Whereas divers good orders have been lately made by both Houses of Parliament, for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government. Which orders (notwithstanding the diligence of the company of Stationers to put them in full execution) have taken little or no effect: By reason the Bill in preparation, for redress of the said disorders, hath hitherto been retarded through the present distractions, and very many, aswel Stationers and Printers, as others of sundry other professions not free of the Stationers Company, have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish, and disperse books, pamphlets and papers, in such multitudes, that no industry could be sufficient to discover or bring to punishment all the several abounding Delinquents ..."[12]

The Ordinance set out that no declaration or oath of Parliament was to be printed without the authority of one or other of the Houses, and no other book, pamphlet or paper was to be printed, published or sold, without both being approved by an appointed licensor, and registered with the Stationers' Company. No work thus registered with the company could be printed without the consent and licence of the owner thereof, or imported from abroad. The search and seize provisions were renewed, but also now extended beyond the Master and Wardens of the Company, to include the Usher of the House of Lords, the Sergeant of the House of Commons, their deputies, and anyone formerly appointed by the Committee of the House of Commons for Examinations. Finally, all "Authors, Printers, and other persons whatsoever" employed in the production of "scandalous, unlicensed, and unwarrantable" works were to be brought before either of the Houses or the Committee of Examinations "so that they may receive such further punishment, as their Offences shall demerit", with all "Justices of the Peace, Captains, Constables, and other Officers" to assist in the apprehension of the same. Perhaps most important in all of this was the fact that, with this Ordinance, as Siebert notes, the transition from the regulation of the press "by the crown under its prerogative powers to jurisdiction by Parliament was completed".[13]


6. References

Governmental Papers and Legislation

An Act for the Regulating of the Privy Council, and for taking away the Court commonly called the Star-Chamber, 1640, 16 Car.I, c.10


Books and Articles

Arber, E., A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640, 5 vols. (London: n.p., 1875-94)

Bracha, O., Owning Ideas: A History of Anglo-American Intellectual Property, [accessed 1 May 2007]

Clyde, W.M., "Parliament and the Press, 1643-47", The Library, [series], 13 (1932-33): 399-424

Firth, C.H., and Rait, R.S., ed., Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, Vol.1 (London: HMSO, 1911)

Patterson, L.R., Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1968)

Siebert, F.S., Freedom of the Press in England 1476-1776 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965)

[1] An Act for the Regulating of the Privy Council, and for taking away the Court commonly called the Star-Chamber, 1640, 16 Car.I, c.10.

[2] F.S. Siebert, Freedom of the Press in England 1476-1776 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965), 166.

[3] Ibid., 172.

[4] E. Arber, A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1557-1640, 5 vols. (London: 1875-94), 1: 584.

[5] As Patterson comments: "[The petition] is of particular interest because it reveals the extent of the stationers' desire for censorship and press control, upon which they insisted their prosperity depended"; L.R. Patterson, Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt University, 1968), 128.

[6] Arber, I: 584-86.

[7] Ibid., 586-87.

[8] Ibid., 587-88.

[9] The practice of assigning ‘copies' between stationers appears to have begun in 1564; the Company Register records an assignment of two copies which Luke Harrison sold to Thomas Marsh; Arber, I, 259. See also O. Bracha, Owning Ideas: A History of Anglo-American Intellectual Property, [accessed 1 May 2007], 171-72.

[10] Bracha, 173.

[11] See for example Siebert, 173-78, 179-201, 202-218; see also W.M. Clyde, "Parliament and the Press, 1643-47", The Library, 4th ser., 13 (1932-33): 399-424 (399-402).

[12] C.H. Firth and R.S. Rait, ed., Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, 3 vols. (London: HMSO, 1911), 1: 184.

[13] Siebert, 186-87.

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