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

§ 5. Printing Monopolies

A cause of much dissension and frequent dispute among the printers was the number of printing monopolies granted during the reign of Elizabeth. These privileges were not only for the exclusive right of printing a definite book, but frequently covered a whole class of books. Thus, in 1559, the printing of law books was confirmed to Richard Tottel, for his lifetime. William Seres, who, in queen Mary’s reign, had been deprived of his privilege of printing Primers and books of private prayers and had suffered imprisonment, succeeded in recovering his patent with reversion to his son and the addition of Psalters to his monopoly. Christopher Baker, successor in 1577 of Richard Jugge in the office of queen’s printer, had the privilege of printing Bibles, the Book of Common Prayer, statutes and proclamations. Through the influence of the earl of Leicester, John Day had been given the monopoly of printing the Psalms in metre and the ABC and Catechism. The printing of dictionaries and chronicles was granted to Henry Bynneman. Richard Watkins and James Roberts had a patent for twenty-one years for almanacs and prognostications, and in 1603 this valuable privilege was conferred by King James I upon the Stationers’ company for ever. Thomas Marshe’s patent included a number of the most usual school books in Latin. “Master Birde and Master Tallis of her Majesty’s Chappel have all music books and also ruled paper for music.” There are also instances of a monopoly being granted for a term of years for a specified book, a privilege which corresponds to our present copyright.

It will be noticed that these privileges were mainly for books of a stereotyped kind for which there was a constant demand, and the production of works of real literature was scarcely, if at all, affected by them. But this concentration of the best paying work in a few hands bred much discontent in the trade, and, together with scarcity of employment, led to frequent complaints by those who felt the pinch.

The forces thus brought into conflict were, on the one side, the possessors of profitable privileges or valuable copyrights which formed the backbone of their business; these were the leading members of the trade, men of influence in the affairs of the company. On the other side, forming a natural opposition, were ranged the unprivileged men, who, possessed of small means and being, to some extent, outsiders, were driven to a more speculative class of business, and picked up—no great matter how—copy which was likely to appeal to the popular taste, such as plays, poems, ballads, or any other unconsidered trifles out of which they might turn a penny. Notwithstanding the specious argument of the monopolists that

  • privileges are a means whereby many books are now printed which are more beneficial to the commonwealth than profitable to the printer, for the patentee being benefited by books of profitable sale is content to bestowe part of his gain in other books, which though very beneficial to the commonwealth will not repay the tenth part of his charge,
  • it is, as a matter of fact, to the unprivileged printers that we owe the preservation in print of the greater part of the poetical, dramatic and popular literature of the time. But, though the names of these men have become known to us mainly in connection with this literature, it is not necessary to credit them with either great literary taste or a consciousness of the part they were playing in this cause; it merely means that necessity and keen competition for business had given them a shrewd eye as to what was likely to find a good market.

    This clashing of interests led to various efforts on the part of the lesser men to obtain redress of their grievances, and a few adventurous spirits took matters into their own hands and proceeded to pirate some of the smaller books for which there was a large and steady sale. Besides being quickly printed, these small publications possessed the advantage of being easily dispersed, and many of them were sent into the country, where, as imprints were also forged, there was little risk of their spurious origin being detected. Legal proceedings naturally followed, and, in 1582, John Day, one of the largest patentees, preferred a complaint to the Star chamber against Roger Ward for printing, and William Holmes for selling, pirated copies of the ABC with the little catechism, a publication for which Day held a patent of monopoly. In his answer to the charge, Ward makes a stout defence, eked out with convenient lapses of memory, and pleads that, a very small number of stationers having gotten all the best books to be printed by themselves by privilege, have left little or nothing for the rest of the printers to live upon. In the same year, William Seres appealed to lord Burghley against the infringement by certain stationers of his right of printing Primers and Psalters, and the form in which his complaint is stated indicates the existence of some more or less organised piracy by the younger men of the company.

    The leader of this lawless band was John Wolfe, of the Fishmongers’ company, a born agitator; he not only printed other men’s copies, but incited others to defy the constituted authorities. A petition against him and his associates, addressed to the privy council by the Stationers’ company in 1583, relates that, on being remonstrated with, Wolfe declared that he would print all their books if he lacked work. Being admonished that he, being but one so mean a man, should not presume to oppose her Highness’s government, “Tush,” said he, “Luther was but one man, and reformed all the world for religion, and I am that one man that must and will reforme the government in this trade.” However, efforts made to compose the differences between the disputants met with some success. The patentees surrendered a number of their copyrights for the use of the poor of the company; and Wolfe, it was reported, “acknowledged his error,” and was admitted into the Stationers’ company. It is amusing to discover Wolfe and Francis Adams, a year or so later, appearing in a Star chamber case righteously indignant at the lawless infringement of a printing patent in which they had acquired a share; and Wolfe is afterwards found taking an active part, as an official of the company, in the search for secret presses.