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 6, 1607
The Puritan was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on August 6, 1607 as "the comedie of 'The Puritan Widowe'." George Eld, the publisher and printer who registered the title, produced the first and only quarto edition l
January 22, 1607
On January 22, 1607, publisher Cuthbert Burby transferred Romeo and Juliet, Love's Labor's Lost, and The Taming of the Shrew to fellow publisher Nicholas Ling in an entry in Liber C of the Stationers' Company.
November 19, 1607
On November 19, 1607, publisher Nicholas Ling transferred the publication rights to sixteen titles to fellow publisher John Smethwick, in an entry in Liber C of the Stationers' Company.
November 26, 1607
Nathaniel Butter and John Busby entered King Lear into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on November 26, 1607, as "Master William Shakespeare his 'historye of Kinge Lear' as yt was played before the kinges maiestie at Whitehall vppon Sainct Stephens night at Christ
May 2, 1608
A Yorkshire Tragedy was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on May 2, 1608, as "A booke Calle A yorkshire Tragedy written by Wylliam Shakespere." This is one of the four times Shakespeare's name appears in the Stationers' Register during his lifetim
May 20, 1608
Pericles was entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on May 20, 1608 as "The booke of Pericles prynce of Tyre." On the same date, Antony and Cleopatra was also entered into the Register, as "Anthony.
January 28, 1609
Troilus and Cressida was entered for the second time in Liber C of the Stationers' Company on January 28, 1609. The play had first been entered into Liber C on February 7, 1603, by James Roberts, a publisher.
December 16, 1611
Thomas Lord Cromwell was originally entered into Liber C of the Stationers' Company on August 11, 1602 by the printer William Cotton for the publisher William Jones.
March 2, 1618
Edward III was originally entered in the Stationers' Register on December 1, 1595, by publisher Cuthbert Burby.
July 8, 1619
The Merchant of Venice was originally entered into the Stationers' Register on July 22, 1598, by James Roberts.