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The Stationers’ Company

The complicated issue of copyright comes up over and over again on FTF. “Copyright presented no problem until the development of printing; it was the need to sell multiple copies of a single printed work before the final profit was made which raised the question. From 1554 until 1924 copyright was normally secured by registration with the Stationers’ Company in London”.

The Stationers’ Company is a Livery Company of the City of London. It has had a corporate existence, under different names, for over 600 years.

Originally set up in 1403, from the amalgamation of the Brotherhood of Manuscript Producers and Brotherhood of the Craft of Writers of Text-Letters, it was for booksellers and scriveners who copied and sold manuscript books and writing materials and the limners who decorated and illustrated them. Anybody carrying on any business in the city of London connected with the book-trade was required to become members of the craft and thus had considerable influence over fixing and controlling the customs of the trade.

In the days before printing, a ‘stationer’ would provide his customer with “a new book, written, illuminated and bound to that customer’s order; a single sale completed the transaction and gave the “stationer” his profit”. On the other hand, a printer “had to make as many sales as there were copies in his impression of a book before the transaction was at an end and the profit fully earned”. The printers needed to make sure that nobody else would take their profit and as early as 1469, a Venetian printer had obtained the privilege of sole rights to publish and by 1507, Parisian publishers had obtained similar concessions. It was not until 1518 that English printers gained the same rights and privileges.

In 1557 the Stationers’ Guild received a Royal Charter of Incorporation which gave them an even greater authority over the trade. As a result of this Charter, nobody could print anything for sale within the kingdom unless he was a member of the Stationer’s Company unless he was exempt through some privilege or patent. It gave the government considerable influence over the type of books which could be published as in for example, the time of Queen Mary when royal proclamations prevented the publishing of protestant or other heretical books.

The Stationers’ Company Register was created which allowed publishers the rights to a particular printed work by purchasing a licence for a fee (about sixpence) from a warden of the Company and was an early form of copyright law. The master and two wardens, who were elected annually, had the power to search for, seize and burn any unlicensed books and send the publishers to prison. The Charter effectively gave the Stationers’ Company a monopoly on printing throughout the kingdom. This meant that a small group of printers became responsible for policing themselves and also gave them a valuable commercial monopoly since all government printing also passed through their hands.

Although the Registers were mainly an account of the fees received, they also contain records of the admission of freemen and the taking of apprentices. Until the early twentieth century the most usual way of joining the company was by serving an apprenticeship to a freeman or liveryman. Apprentice’s indentures were drawn up by the company and printing houses had to present their apprentices at Stationer’s Hall, for a fee of sixpence, during their first year. They were also limited in the number of apprentices they could have at one time.

In the early 1700s, Parliament refused to continue to support the monopoly that the stationers had enjoyed for centuries and the power of censorship that the crown had enjoyed along with it.

The “Statute of Anne” in 1709-1710, finally created the basis of modern copyright law, in which most of the powers granted were to the publishers, with only a few crumbs for the authors of the works they published. The original law gave all rights to every word ever written in history to a business cartel known first as The Stationers’ Guild and in later times as The Stationers’ Company. The new law gave a first copyright term of 14 years to The Stationers’ Company and a second copyright term to an author, but only if that author was still alive and only of value if the works were still selling well after the initial 14 years.

In 1933 the Company of Newspaper Makers was amalgamated with the Stationers’ Company.

The Company was also philanthropic and records show that they looked after widows and pensioners. They also started The Stationer’s School in Bolt Court, Fleet Street in 1852. The school was intended for the education of sons of the members of the company. It outgrew its premises and in 1894, the school moved to Hornsey in North London. It was a grammar school until 1967 when it became comprehensive and was eventually closed in 1984.
The influence of the Stationer’s Company as a publisher gradually declined, although many of its strict rules and practices were followed and enforced by the Printing Trades Unions.

Nowadays, the Company also includes printing, papermaking, packaging, advertising, design, photography, film and video production and book, periodical and electronic as well as newspaper publishing and production.


© Caroline 2008


The Stationers’ Company: A History, 1403-1959 by Cyprian Blagden.
© George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1960. Extracts from the book can be seen on Questia.

The Stationers Company Charter
Granted by Philip and Mary and confirmed by Elizabeth I

The Stationers’ and Newspaper Maker’s Company

Research Guide: Stationers’ Hall Copyright Records

The Stationers’ Company Registers or Entry Books of Copies 1554-1842 are deposited at The National Archives.

The Library and Archives of The Stationers’ Company are housed in the Stationers’ Hall, Ave Maria Lane, London EC4M 7DD and are also available on microfilm through the British Library and other National Libraries.