The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 11. Copyright

The only form of copyright recognised at this time was the entry of a “copy” in the Stationers’ register by a member of the company, and the right to print any work so entered became vested in the stationer in whose name it stood. So far as the author was concerned, no rights existed; in a few cases, it is true, a royal patent was granted to a particular individual giving him a monopoly of his work for a specified period, but these exceptions only serve to accentuate the general case. The author was thus at the mercy of the stationer. He could, no doubt, take his manuscript in his hand, and, making the round of the shops, conclude a bargain with some bookseller whom he found willing to undertake the publication of his work; but, except by agreement, he could retain no control over his book: it would be entered in the register in the stationer’s name and become his property. As for the author who allowed his writings to be circulated in manuscript, as was often done in the case of poems and other forms of polite literature, he was in a still more defenceless state, for his manuscript was liable to be snapped up by any literary scout who might scent a paying venture; and the first stationer who could acquire it might forthwith proceed to Stationers’ Hall and secure the copyright of the work, leaving the hapless author without recompense or redress, and without even the consolation of his literary pride of correcting the errors of copyist and printer. In such cases, the publisher frequently prefixed an address from his own pen, dedicating the work to whom he would, and taking credit to himself for presenting it to the reading public. It was in this way that Sidney’s Sonnets in 1591, Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609, and other worthy shelf-fellows first attained the dignity of print, if that description may be applied to such mean typographical productions.