Lapse of the Licensing Act 1695
Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398–1468), John Locke (1632–1704)
With the development of moveable type by Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century, Europe was faced with a new problem: regulating the written word. When William Caxton established a press at Westminster in 1476, the new technology arrived in England, but progress was slow. The Stationers’ Company was awarded a royal charter — and hence a monopoly on printing — by Mary I in 1557.
Elizabeth I, her sister, imposed the Star Chamber Decree on printing in 1586, which severely limited printing. Charles I issued a second Star Chamber Decree against printing in 1637, and further acts and ordinances restricted the practice over the years.
The Licensing Act, properly “An Act for preventing the frequent Abuses in publishing seditious, treasonable, and unlicensed Books and Pamphlets, and for controlling of Printing and printing Presses,” was passed by Parliament in 1662. The law governed who could print, import, and sell goods, as well as what could and couldn’t be printed.
It also defined the standards for products that could be produced. Only the Stationers’ Company’s current master printers and two university printers had printing power, and incoming master printers were subject to limitations. The Stationers’ Company was granted a monopoly, which acted as a catalyst for reform.
When the Licensing Act was due for renewal in 1695, resistance to the Stationers’ monopoly in the House of Commons, along with the Stationers’ own stubbornness, resulted in a deadlock and the statute’s lapse. John Locke, who raged against the Stationers’ misuse of their monopoly in a report to the House of Commons, was one of the most convincing opponents of renewal. Ironically, neither freedom of speech nor freedom of the press were discussed throughout the discussion.
“Freedom of the press had come into England all but incidentally to the abolition of a commercial monopoly,” writes Robert Hargreaves in his history of free speech, The First Freedom. Nonetheless, “the crown’s rights to regulate the press, as well as censorship and previous limitations on publishing, had vanished forever.” In London, a slew of newspapers appeared, including England’s first daily, the Daily Courant, in 1702.
America’s First Copyright Law (1790);
The Berne Convention (1878);
The Copyright Act of 1976; Expanded Copyrights (2001).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)