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 18, 1593
Venus and Adonis was William Shakespeare’s first work to be entered into a Stationers’ Company register. This epic poem was entered on April 18, 1593 into the Stationers' Liber B by Richard Field (entered as "ffeild"), a printer from Stratford-upon-Avon.
May 2 and 9, 1594
The play called The Taming of a Shrew was entered into Stationer's Liber B on May 2, 1594, as "A plesant Conceyted historie called 'the Tayminge of a Shrowe.'" It was entered by the printer Peter Short.
June 25, 1594
On June 25, 1594, the London printer and publisher Richard Field (entered as "ffeild") transferred his rights to print Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis over to his colleague, John Harrison the Elder.
June 25, 1596
On June 25, 1596, the London printer and publisher John Harrison the Elder transferred his rights to print Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis to his colleague, William Leake, who printed the fifth edition in 1599.
May 20, 1609
On May 20, 1609, a publisher named Thomas Thorpe entered a book entitled "Shakespeare's sonnettes" into Liber C of the Stationers' Company.
March 1, 1614
The Rape of Lucrece was first entered into Liber B of the Stationer's Company on May 9, 1594 by John Harrison (known as "the Elder" to distinguish him from his brother of the same name, also a printer and publisher).
February 16, 1617
Venus and Adonis was the first of Shakespeare's works to be entered into the Stationers' Register and to be printed. It was originally entered into Liber B on April 18, 1593, by Richard Field.