History of Copyright in the UK

Jul 6, 2022 | Copyright & Licensing, History

Dr Ruth Frendo, Archivist at Stationers’ Hall shares the interesting history of the origins of copyright with the GCA, along with some of the interesting material held in their archive. Stationers’ Hall Archive is available to view by appointment, reopened in June 2022 after a major redevelopment project.

Stationers’ Hall

Stationers’ Hall in the City of London is the home of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, it was established in 1403 and incorporated by Royal Charter in 1557. The Hall is one of the few ancient Livery Halls remaining in the City of London today and was rebuilt after the Great Fire.

The Stationers’ Register is the Company’s archival record. In the sixteenth century the Company’s Charter gave it the sole privilege of recording all material licensed to be printed, i.e. books that had been approved by the Crown and the Church. Each record was noted down as an ‘entry of copy’ for a particular title, making the Register one of the few surviving primary sources on book production from this period.

Origins of Copyright

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the registering of a title at Stationers’ Hall was a transaction between the Company and the printer or publisher, and gave them legal ownership so the work could not be copied. Although the author was not a party to this contract, it is the start of what we know of as “copyright”.

In 1710 the first English copyright statute was passed,” the Statute of Anne”. It gave the first statutory recognition to the author’s stake in the text. All books registered with the Stationers’ Company were granted protection from unauthorised printing.

1814 and 1842 Copyright Acts

In 1814, a new Copyright Act extended the term of protection from unauthorised printing from 14 to 28  years, or the author’s life if this was longer.

In 1842 copyright was to last for the author’s lifetime plus seven years, or for a minimum of forty-two years from the date of publication and defined the concept of copyright as we now understand it.

One of the first cases brought to the Court of Chancery under the 1842 Act was a suit brought by Charles Dickens against the publishers Richard Egan Lee and John Haddock, for their publication of A Christmas Ghost Story that infringed his Christmas Carol!

Birth of Modern Copyright

Copyright Act 1911 gave protection to all copyrighted material without the need for registration.  The Stationers’ Registers from 1912 were transferred to the Public Records Office (now the National Archives) over the next decades where they can be viewed., The earlier Registers dating back to the 16th century are held by the Company in their archive at Stationers’ hall.

Copyright UK law has continued to be updated. To understand how to protect your designs today see our detailed blog  where we bring some clarity on what the UK Laws governing ownership and rights mean, busting the myths and providing some best practice advice and details on where to get more information.

Further information

Information on current UK copyright legislation can be found at https://www.gov.uk/topic/intellectual-property/copyright

Visit the GCA Members’ Library to see more information on Copyright and Licensing

See our Victorian Cards, Crackers and Christmas Themes blog to hear Dr Ruth Frendo, Archivist at the Stationers talk with Dr Katherine Howells from the National Archives and GCA’s Amanda Fergusson about copyright law and Christmas cards.

Stationers’ Company Archive records date from 1554 to the present day: https://www.stationers.org/company/archive

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