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From 1557, no one was allowed to print in England unless they were a member of the Stationers’ Company (a London-based trade and craft organization) or held a royal “privilege.” In order to protect members’ interests, the Company required that anyone wanting to publish a work had to seek authorization from senior company officers. This protected the work from being reprinted or commercially threatened by other members without permission. Obtaining authorization was compulsory, but the member also had the option of entering the work’s title into the “Stationers’ Register,” which had the advantage that the publisher was not depending solely on the memory of the officers or the retention of the original signed manuscript to defend his or her rights.

For the first twenty-five years, permission was conditional on publication of the work; after that, the act of permission itself granted immediate protection. These publishing rights—or “copy”—were initially understood to last for an individual’s lifetime, although by the early seventeenth century they were considered perpetual and could be bequeathed or transferred to any other member.

The Register thus records the right to publish (not the publication itself) of many, but not all, works published in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. When Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount entered the First Folio in November 1623, they could only enter those works for which no previous right to publish had been asserted, and had to negotiate agreements with publishers who already owned the rights to publish specific plays.

The Register was central to the Copyright Act of 1710, and remained a key element in copyright legislation until the Copyright Act of 1911. The rights to publish Shakespeare’s works were bequeathed and traded throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The Register contains 34 entries for Shakespeare’s plays and poems, up to and including the First Folio (1623). 

The Register contains records from 1557 to 1911 (apart from 1571–6); the pre-1842 volumes are held at Stationers’ Hall in London.

Contributed by Ian Gadd.

All Documents

August 4, 1600
On August 4, 1600, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It (along with a fourth play not authored by Shakespeare, Every Man in His Humor) were noted on the flyleaf of Liber C of the Stationer's Company.
August 11 and 14, 1600
Sir John Oldcastle was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on August 11, 1600.
August 23, 1600
On August 23, 1600, William Shakespeare's name appears for the first of five times in the Stationers' Register as "Mr Shakespere." The London publishers Andrew Wise and William Aspley entered two of his plays at that time: Much Ado About Nothing, entered
October 8, 1600
A Midsummer Night's Dream was entered into Liber C of the Stationer's Company on October 8, 1600.
August 11, 1602
Thomas, Lord Cromwell was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on August 11, 1602.
January 18, 1602
The Merry Wives of Windsor was entered twice into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on January 18, 1602, shown above. John Busby, who made the first entry for that day, printed no known copies, and had never registered the title previously.
April 19, 1602
Henry VI Part 1 and Part 2 and Titus Andronicus  were entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on April 19, 1602.
July 26, 1602
Hamlet was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on July 26, 1602.
February 7, 1603
Troilus and Cressida was entered for the first time in Liber C of the Stationers' Company on February 7, 1603.
June 25, 1603
Richard III,  Richard II, and Henry IV Part 1 were all transferred to publisher Matthew Law from publisher Andrew Wise in an entry in Liber C of the Stationers' Company, dated June 25, 1603.

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