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

April 3, 1592
"The Tragedy of Arden of Faversham and Black Will" was entered by Edward White in Stationers' Liber B on April 3, 1592 and licensed for publication by John Aylmer, Bishop of London.
July 20, 1594
The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine, the Eldest Son of King Brutus was entered into Stationers' Liber B  by Thomas Creede on July 20, 1594 as "The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine, the eldest sonne of Kinge Brutus.
February 6, 1594
Titus Andronicus was entered into Stationer's Liber B on February 6, 1594 as "a Noble Roman Historye of Tytus  Andronicus." John Danter, the printer who entered the play, also created a separate entry for a ballad with the same storyline.
March 12, 1594
Henry VI Part 2 was entered into Stationer's Liber B on March 12, 1594 as "the firste parte of the Contention of the twoo famous houses of York and Lancaster with the deathe of the good Duke Humfrey and the banishement and Deathe of the Duke of Suffolk and the tragicall ende of
December 1, 1595
Edward III was entered in Liber C of the Stationers' Company on December 1, 1595 as "Edward the Third and the Blacke Prince their warres with kinge John of Fraunce." The play was entered by London publisher Cuthbert Burby, who ordered the first quarto edition
August 29, 1597
Richard II was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on August 29, 1597. The title as entered reads "The Tragedye of Richard the Second".
October 20, 1597
Richard III was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on October 20, 1597.
February 25, 1598
Henry IV Part 1 was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on February 25, 1598, under the title "The historye of Henry the iiijth with his battaile of Shrewsburye against Henry Hottspurre of the Northe with the conceipted mirthe of Sir John Ffalstoff." Andrew Wise
July 22, 1598
The Merchant of Venice was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on July 22, 1598, under "the title the Marchaunt of Venyce or otherwise called the Jewe of Venyce." James Roberts, the London printer and publisher who entered the title, was allowed to enter the pla
October 8, 1600
A Midsummer Night's Dream was entered into Liber C of the Stationer's Company on October 8, 1600.