Commentary on:
Johannes of Speyer's Printing Monopoly (1469)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: i _1469


Commentary on Johannes of Speyer's monopoly 1469

Joanna Kostylo

University of Cambridge, UK


Please cite as:
Kostylo, J. (2008) ‘Commentary on Johannes of Speyer's Venetian monopoly (1469)', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,

1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. First printing privilege in Europe

4. Printing 'revolution' in Venice

5. The early book market and the emergence of the privilege system

6. References



1. Full title
Printing monopoly granted to a German master printer, Johannes of Speyer, conceding a five-year exclusive right to print in Venice and its dominions (1 p)


2. Abstract
The first known record of a print privilege/patent granted by a European government. Unique in history of Venetian copyright, for it concedes an extensive commercial monopoly over the entire art of printing. The commentary describes the early laissez-faire attitudes of the government towards the printing trade which combined with the natural play of economic forces to foster a thoroughly capitalistic structure of the book market in Venice. From this point of view, the emerging system of printing privileges could be defined as a primitive legal mechanism for the construction and maintenance of property and the re-introduction of scarcity into the book market.


3. First printing privilege in Europe
"On 18 September 1469, a German inventor master Johannes of Speyer began printing books in Venice, and received a privilege to publish the letters of Tullio [Cicero], and Pliny", Marino Sanudo recorded in his Vite dei dogi.[1] It seems that the diligent Venetian diarist, leafing through the acts of the register of the Venetian Collegio, thought it important to bring to the attention of his readers the record of a five year monopoly awarded to a German immigrant from Mainz, Johannes of Spyer (d. 1469), for printing in Venice. This document is most famous as the first known record of a printing privilege granted by a European government.[2]

The Venetians may not have been the first to introduce printing into Italy but they were quick to recognise the importance of the new craft. Ever since the fourteenth century they had been granting monopoly rights to immigrants who brought with them new skills and techniques to the city. Johannes of Speyer's plea does not appear in the economic life of fifteenth-century Venice as something new and unknown. Petitions of the sort which Johannes of Speyer presented were very common. A substantial number of immigrants from Germany, Netherlands and other Italian states were able to obtain monopolies as importers of a new art or inventors.[3] Thus when a skilled German master appeared before the Venetian Collegio and promised to introduce a new faster and cheaper way of producing books the councillors did not pass on the opportunity to secure his services.[4] In the privilege granted to Johannes of Speyer, the councillors are careful to stress that "such an innovation, unique and particular to our age and entirely unknown to the ancients, must be supported and nourished with all our goodwill and resources."

"We consider his art of printing something to be expanded rather than something to be abandoned", they emphasise, conceding to Johannes an extensive monopoly over the entire art of printing for five years in Venice and its dominions - the measures, they explain, that they have been adopting for years in supporting other and much smaller enterprises. For the councillors, therefore, Johannes of Speyer's petition must have been no different from many other requests for a patent to exercise new enterprise or invention, which were regularly submitted to various magistracies of the Venetian state. Did they anticipate the potential impact of a new way of producing books? Probably not. Had Johannes's monopoly remained in force for the entire five years, Venice would have never become the fastest-growing publishing industry in Europe.[5] Indeed, the councillors must have breathed a sigh of relief when they learned that Johannes died within months after obtaining the privilege, for it soon became apparent that printers were rushing to establish new presses in the city. The monopoly rights were not renewed to Johannes's brother Windelius who continued his work, as an anonymous note rectifies on the margin of the original recording: "[the privilege] is now invalid, since the master and author died."[6] Never again would the Venetian government grant such wide protection to a printer.[7] In the next seventeen years, no further privileges were granted and the trade was free to develop without any state intervention.[8]


4. Printing 'revolution' in Venice
There was no need for state protectionism. With a university with busy faculties of law and medicine and the revival of classical scholarship, Venice had already been involved in a considerable book trade, both before and after the introduction of printing. And as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe with a thriving mercantile system and flourishing intellectual life, Venice did not need to offer monopolies to induce printers to come and work in the city.[9] Between 1469 and 1480 the names of at least fifty printers practicing in the city were recorded, among them such figures as Nicholas Jenson, Johannes of Cologne and Aldus Manutius.[10]

The first experiments in printing books by using movable metal types began in Germany in the late 1440s. By 1448, a German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz (c. 1400 - 1468) and probably several other printing houses were printing their first volumes. But it was not until the mid-1460s that the new industry spread beyond Mainz and was brought to Italy. In 1465, two German printers, Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz, under the patronage of a German cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, established the first printing venture outside Germany, in the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco near Rome.[11] By 1467, Sweynheym and Pannartz moved to Rome itself. Soon, printing presses began to operate in Lyon and Paris as well as other Italian cities such as Ferrara, Florence, Milan, Bologna and Naples. But Venice would surpass them all. As Martin Lowry has put it, "if Gutenberg invented typography, Jenson and John of Cologne [operating in Venice] have a strong claim to have turned it from a jealously guarded commercial secret into a vehicle of mass-communication."[12] In this first period from the introduction of printing, Venice had roughly 200 presses established while Rome had only 37, Florence 32, Bologna 40 and Milan 60, and Lyon and Paris together 150.[13] No fewer than 4000 editions were published.[14] It was in this period that Venice produced its finest editions to become the leader of the European book trade in the fifteenth century.

Scholars and writers too went more readily to Venice than to any other city, in their search for publishers, attracted by the excellence of the local paper stock and typography as much as relatively liberal atmosphere in the city. In contrast to other early modern states where censorship and state regulation took on early to encourage and protect the nascent trade, in Venice, the trade was left virtually uncontrolled in the first years of its development. It was only in 1515 when Andrea Navagero was appointed for the task of the official revision of books that the state began to exercise a degree of control over what was printed (see i_1516). Even then, this literary censorship was primarily concerned with the quality of printed books to secure commercially successful correct editions. Thus the natural play of economic forces had left printers free to establish their printing enterprises and compete against each other in an open market.[15] In other words, Venice was an ideal place from which to begin the "printing revolution."

The rapid expansion of the printing industry leaves no doubt that Venice was the first city in the world to feel the full impact of printing, and to experience the most important revolution in human communications, and a favourable territory in which the system of copyright could develop. This, however, did not make Venice into a champion of literary property. It would take a long time before the copyright holder was identified with the moral or aesthetic personality of the writer.

The best-known explanation for the emergence of author's rights is a technological one, viewing the need to protect literary production as a consequence of the invention of printing.[16] In a manuscript culture, texts were treated as common property, and copying another man's work was often considered more of a favour than an injury.[17] Though printing with movable type had speeded up the process of copying books, its revolutionary impact in the first years of printing should not be overemphasised. Gutenberg's contemporaries may have seen printing as no more than a faster and cheaper means of multiplying the texts which had already enjoyed success as manuscripts such as the Greek classics and the Bible.[18]

It is not so much printing as the existence of a market in books and ideas that introduced concepts of intellectual property. As the literary market increased in importance, authors, who might well be writing for a living and competing for recognition, began to stress the distinctiveness of their products, in other words their intellectual or literary originality. Printing encouraged the development of such a market and expanded the concept of a book as a commodity (selling object). However, the concept of a book as a particular category of commodity - the work of the mind - was slow to develop.

In the early years of printing, press products were not clearly distinguishable from industrial products. Indeed, the invention of the printing press could be seen as an adaptation of the wine or olive press, or any other industrial devices that used the technique of lever and screw presses. Similarly, books were treated more or less in the same way as any other piece of merchandise: they were being valued by weight at the customs just like any commodity and they were used as a barter payment to purchase wine, oil, flour and other industrial products. They could even "go out of date". In 1568, a Brescian bookseller who suffered financial loss as a result of stocking books which were prohibited by the Inquisition lamented that "the book trade is a slow business, and every few days books get banned, and those that are in use this year, next year are good only to throw to the fish."[19]

Literary or intellectual property is consequently an anachronistic and misleading term in the context of the early book market. In fact, it is easily forgotten that Johannes of Speyer's privilege was a monopoly (quasi-patent) awarded for the exercise of a new technological innovation rather then works printed with it, as would later be the case with printing privileges. From the juridical point of view, the printing monopoly of the sort which Johannes received is similar to what is today regarded as a patent law which guarantees an inventor's right to the ownership and commercial use of his discoveries.[20] Subsequently, a number of such patents for technological innovations in printing technology and type-design were recorded, from the italic typeface and the new systems of printing Greek introduced by Aldus Manutius, to an improved method of printing music invented by Ottaviano Petrucci and the chiaroscuro printing patented by the printmaker Ugo da Carpi. (See i_1498, i_1503, and i_1516). These types of grants also were imitated elsewhere. In 1557, Henri II of France, issued an exclusive right to a printer, Granjon, who designed another new type, called "caractère de civilité".[21]

There was no strict separation between industrial brevets (protopatents) and printing privileges. Both conceded a commercial monopoly and developed in response to the economic pressures of the market. Humanists and courtiers might have heaped praises upon the "divine art" of printing but those who knew better complained of the "treacherous rage and rivalry which are usual in this miserable trade."[22] The world of the press developed as an industry governed by the same rules as other trades exercised in Venice and was often portrayed as the underground of drunken, sweaty and greedy artisans rather than the high world of literary genius. The printing press shared the mechanical principles of the lever and screw press that was used in the production of wine, cheese, linen and paper. Gutenberg was essentially adapting technology and materials which had been in use for centuries, though not necessarily in the context of books. The moveable metal types were new but even these were produced with tools (the punch and the matrix) that were in everyday use in making coins, medals and seals and in hallmarking metal. Gutenberg was a goldsmith. Nicholas Jenson, once metallurgist at the French royal mint, became one of the most famous pioneer-printers who made his career in Venice.[23] Marcantonio Sabellico, "the first Italian writer to make a career from the new medium," was a goldsmith's son.[24]


5. The early book market and the emergence of the privilege system
Printing was a risky and unpredictable business. Even if the Venetian Councillors speak of "many volumes" which Johannes of Speyer could produce at "low price", printing was expensive. A Bible printed in Venice in 1478 (228 sheets, 930 copies) would have cost about 450-500 ducats for paper and labour; a Latin translation of the works of Plato printed in Florence in 1483 (281 sheets, 1, 025 copies) would have required about 250 florins for paper and labour.[25] To put these numbers in the context, a typesetter might hope to earn 50 or 60 ducats in a year. Printing was fast and cheap only in comparison to scarce manuscript editions. The cost of production of one incunabula edition was only four or five times inferior respectively to the book transcribed by hand.[26] In 1492, a Venetian printer Paganino de Paganini speaks of the high production costs of his edition of the Bible, including labour and printing equipment which amounted to over 4,000 ducats, and of his dread of being ruined by unfair rivalry ("la total ruina et desfation"). Even if he had been exaggerating the real cost, his investment must still have been considerable, while returns were uncertain and slow.[27]

After the monopoly of Johannes of Speyer was revoked, the printing trade was left virtually uncontrolled and presses multiplied in Venice. The rapid expansion of the industry eventually led to inflation and overproduction. The secure market for Latin and Greek classics had quickly collapsed once the supply of unpublished material dried up and a deluge of corrupt pirated editions saturated the Venetian book market. As early as 1473, complaints could be heard that the city was flooded with books.[28] Many aspiring presses went out of business after producing just one or two editions. Printers were left with nothing but unsold copies to face their creditors.[29] In 1484, a desperate Paduan typographer, Ercole Busca, committed suicide because of his debts.[30]

It is in this intensely competitive book market that the system of book privileges eventually emerged. Once the printing of books far outstripped the demand, printers were likely to seek ways of re-imposing some form of scarcity. In other words, they sought to restrict the production of competing editions of specific texts that drove down prices and undermined the economic viability of many presses. This could be avoided by the provision of some form of copyright, a printing monopoly ensuring that each text was offered for sale by only one printer.

After 1493, when the Venetian Collegio set a precedent giving Daniele Barbaro a ten-year exclusive grant to publish a book by his late brother, Ermolao, any title could be the subject of an award of monopoly. The idea had spread rapidly. Within the next few printers began to apply for printing privileges on regular basis and by 1526 at least 254 privileges were granted, as Fulin's collection of privileges records.[31]

In applying for privileges, printers routinely referred to the high costs of production (for paper, characters, for the purchase of the manuscript, etc.) and emphasised the need to protect their investment against fierce and unfair competition. In 1507, Paganini again, complained of the threat of unfair competition and spoke of the "perfidious rivalry which prevails in this poor and miserable art which had brought total ruin to his house".[32]

From the economic point of view, therefore, the emerging system of book privileges served as a primitive legal mechanism for the construction and maintenance of property and the re-introduction of scarcity in the book market. It established the exchangeability of the book as a commodity and regulated its exchange value, a price which could be kept at a high level by the formation of legal monopolies. And, in the process of defining criteria for granting such privileges, it introduced the notion of novelty and originality into the realm of ideas and knowledge. It was a system that developed spontaneously under the economic pressures which publishers and printers were experiencing rather than under government legislation.


6. References
Brown, H. F., The Venetian Printing Press 1469-1800: An Historical Study Based upon Documents for the Most Part Hitherto Unpublished (London: John C. Nimmo, 1891)

Castellani, C., I privilegi di stampa e la proprietà letteraria in Venezia: Dalla introduzione della stampa nella città fin verso la fine del secolo XVIII (Venezia: Fratelli Visentini, 1888)

____., La stampa in Venezia dalla sua origine alla morte di Aldo Manuzio Seniore, con appendice di documenti in parte inediti (Trieste: Edizioni LINT, 1973)

Eisenstein, E., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1979/80)

Febvre, L. and H.-J. Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of printing, 1450-1800 (London: New Left Books, 1976)

Gerulaitis, L. V., Printing and Publishing in fifteenth-century Venice (Chicago: American Library Association, 1976)

Lowry, M., "The social world of Nicholas Jenson and John of Cologne", La Bibliofilia 83/3 (1981): 193-218

Pozza, N. "L'editoria Veneziana da Giovanni da Spira ad Aldo Manuzio", in La stampa degli incunaboli nel Veneto, Saggi e note (Verona: tipografia Editoriale Aldo Manuzio, 1983), 9-35

[1] "A di 18 Septembrio fo scomenzà a Veniesia a stampar libri: inventor un maestro Zuane de Spira, todescho, et stampò le epistole di Tullio, et Plinio." Cf. Carlo Castellani, La stampa in Venezia, p. 13 from manuscript Marc. It VII 125 (c. 133), and less exactly in Marino Sanudo, Vite dei dogi, in RR.II.SS., XXII, Mediolani 1733, col. 1189 D. [Si conserva nell'Archivio di Venezia un piccolo registro, scritto di mano del Sanudo, intitolato Notabilia, che contiene in gran parte estrati dal Notatorio del Collegio.

[2] ASV, Collegio, Notatorio, reg. XIX (1467-1473), fol. 55 verso. This document has been transcribed and published in several books; among others in Rinaldo Fulin, "Documenti per servire alla storia della tipografia veneziana", Archivio Veneto 23 (1882): 84-212, 390-405; Carlo Castellani, La stampa in Venezia dalla sua origine alla morte di Aldo Manuzio Seniore, con appendice di documenti in parte inediti (Trieste: Edizioni LINT, 1973), 69; and Horatio Fortini Brown, The Venetian Printing Press 1469-1800: An Historical Study Based upon Documents for the Most Part Hitherto Unpublished (London: John C. Nimmo, 1891), 6-7.

[3] Roberto Berveglieri, Inventori stranieri a Venezia, (1474-1788): Importazione di tecnologia e circolazione di tecnici artigiani inventori (Venezia: Istituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere e Arti, 1995).

[4] Johannes of Speyer himself proudly proclaimed, in the colophon to his first printed book (Cicero's Epistoale ad familiares, 1469), that he pioneered the new craft: "Primus in Adriaca formis impressit aënis / Urbe Libros Spira genitus de gente Ioannes;/ In reliquis sit quanta vides spes, lector, habenda,/ Quom labor hic primus calami superaverit artem" ["Johannes, a native of Speyer, was the first in this Adriatic town / to print books with moulds of bronze; /And how much more hope is to be had, reader, / that this work will be the first to surpass the art of pen-writing"].

[5] Haebler speculates that even during the short period it was in effect it must have deterred some printers from moving to Venice. In 1470 about a dozen new printers opened shop in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, while only Nicolas Jenson and Christopher Valdarfer did so in Venice. Brown claims that the monopoly was never intended to be stringently binding but was more in the nature of a diploma of merit. pp. 52-3. Cf. Leonardas V. Gerulaitis, Printing and Publishing in fifteenth-century Venice (Chicago: American Library Association, 1976), 21 and 34.

[6] "Nullius est vigoris, quia obiit magister et auctor." Vinelinus also explained in the 'soscrizione' to Civitate dei of St Augustine which he published in 1470: "subita sed morte perentus, Non potuit coeptum Venetis finire volumen."

[7] Similar exclusive rights were granted in Milan in 1470 but for unknown reasons its beneficiary Antonio Planella chose not to make use of this opportunity and, as in Venice, the offer was never repeated. Brian Richardson, Printing, writers and readers in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 39.

[8] With an exception of the privilege granted in 1486 to Marcantonio Sabellico (i_1486), the main body of book privileges dates from the privilege granted on 3 January 1492. Fulin, "Documenti", 102, nr 4.

[9] The most recent discussion of this theme is Peter Burke, "Early Modern Venice as a Centre of Information and Communication', in Venice Reconsidered, 389-419. See also, Pierre Sardella, Nouvelles et spéculation au Venice u début du XVI siècle (Paris: Armand Colin, 1948), 10 and 14.

[10] Elisabeth Amstrong, Before Copyright: the French Book-Privilege System 1498-1526 (Cambridge: University Press, 1990), 1.

[11] The first book printed by Seynheym and Pannartz was Elio Donato's Grammatica Latina (1465). Castellani, La stampa, 9.

[12] Martin Lowry, "The social world of Nicholas Jenson and John of Cologne", La Bibliofilia 83, disp. III (1981): 193-218 (196), quoting after S. Samek Ludovici, "Gutenberg e l'Italia", Accademie e bilioteche d'Italia, n. s. 33 (1965): 429-453.

[13] Neri Pozza, "L'editoria Veneziana da Giovanni da Spira ad Aldo Manuzio", in La stampa degli incunaboli nel Veneto, Saggi e note (Verona: tipografia Editoriale Aldo Manuzio", 1983), 9-35 (10). Up to 1480, figures are reasonably secure; afterwards, the number of unidentified presses growns. Cf. Brown, The Venetian Printing Press, 28n.

[14] J. Lenhart, Pre-reformation Printed Books (New York, 1935), p. 76; Scholderer, ‘Printers and Readers in the Fifteenth Century', pp. 28-30.

[15] According to Elisabeth Amstrong, "beyond question is the fact that, from the first decade of its existence, the printing industry was acquiring a thoroughly capitalistic structure, and that control of that structure was passing into the hands of merchants or printer/booksellers", Before Copyright, 18.

[16] Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformation in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[17] H, J. Chaytor, From Script to Print: an Introduction to Medieval Literature (Cambridge: University Press, 1945), 115-37.

[18] Lucien Febvre, and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of printing, 1450-1800 (London: New Left Books, 1976).

[19] Cf. Richardson, Printing, 38. Ironically enough, a few decades later, some entrepreneurial booksellers were smuggling books prohibited by the Inquisition precisely in fish barrels.

[20] Carlo Castellani, I privilegi di stampa e la proprietà letteraria in Venezia: Dalla introduzione della stampa nella città fin verso la fine del secolo XVIII (Venezia: Stabilimento Tipo-Litografico Fratelli Visentini, 1888), 5.

[21] Cf. M. Frumkin, "The Origins of Patents", Journal of Patent Office Society 143 (1945): 143-149 (145).

[22] Fulin, "Documenti", 132, nr 177.

[23] Martin J.C. Lowry, The world of Aldus Manutius: business and scholarship in Renaissance Venice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), 10.

[24] Ibid. 28.

[25] Richardson, Printing, 25.

[26] Giovanni Andrea Bussi, bishop of Aleria and editor of twenty-four of the books printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz in Rome wrote in a dedication to Pope Sixtus IV: "... quod tuo tempore non minus valet paene papyrus vacua et nuda pergamenave quam hodie optatissimi libri emantur Hieronymi epistolae." "Ad Paulu Venetum pontificem maximum" in Epistularum divi Hieronymi primi voluminis recognitione epistola (1471). Cf. G. A. Bussi, Prefazioni alle edizioni di Seynheim e Pannartz, prototipografi romani, ed. by M. Miglio (Milano, 1978). See also Angelo Colla, "Tipografi, editori e libri a Padova, treviso, Vicenza, Verona, Trento", in La stampa degli incunaboli nel Veneto, Saggi e note (Verona: tipografia Editoriale Aldo Manuzio, 1983), 37-80 (45).

[27] Fulin, "Documenti", 104, nr 9; and 166, nr 162.

[28] De Strata, Filippo. Polemic against printing, trans. by Shelagh Grier; edited and introduced by Martin Lowry (Birmingham: Hayloft Press, 1986).

[29] Cf. Lowry, The World of Aldus Manutius, p. 13.

[30] 10 February 1484 - notario Francesco Fabrizi di Padova, Padova, Arch. Stato, Notarile, t. 2914, c. 151. Cf. Antonio Sartori, I libri e stampatori in Padova, Miscellanea di Studi Storici in onore di Mons. G. Bellini - tipografo editore libraio (Padova: tipografia Antoniana, 1959), 210.

[31] Rinaldo Fulin, "Documenti per servire alla storia della tipografia veneziana", Archivio Veneto 23 (1882), 84-212, 390-405.

[32] ("la perfida concorrentia, laquale regna in questa povera, et miserabile arte... che seria total ruina del casa sua").

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