Commentary on:
Venetian Decree on Press Affairs (1517)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)

Identifier: i _1517

Commentary on the Venetian Senate's first Decree on Press Affairs

Joanna Kostylo

University of Cambridge, UK


Please cite as:
Kostylo, J. (2008) ‘Commentary on the Venetian Senate's decree on press affairs (1517)', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,

1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. Crisis of the Venetian printing industry and the first press regulation

4. Expansion of the scope of protection beyond the sphere of verbatim reproduction (1517-1537)

5. Bibliography

1. Full title:
The Venetian Senate's first Decree on Press Affairs

2. Abstract
The Decree of 1517 was the first act of public legislation regulating the printing trade in Venice. It revoked all existing monopolies and ruled that future privileges were to be granted only for "new books and works." This was the first in a series of remedial decrees which sought to introduce stricter rules for the granting of new privileges, in order to prevent the formation of legal monopolies and abuses of the privilege system. The commentary argues that in the process of defining new criteria for awarding privileges, the Venetian legal regime expanded the boundary of protection beyond the sphere of verbatim reproduction and introduced the notion of novelty and originality into the realm of the book market.


3. Crisis of the Venetian printing industry and the first press regulation
Although the extensive legal monopoly granted to Johannes of Speyer was never repeated, the tactics pursued by powerful printing establishments, such as Nicholas Jenson (1420-1480) and Johannes of Cologne or Andrea Torresani (1451-1529) and Aldus Manutius (1449/50-1515), show that the privilege system could be used to drive out opposition and monopolize the market. 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.[1] The idea had spread rapidly. Printers and publishers rushed to secure profitable titles by obtaining as many privileges as possible. Powerful printing establishments accumulated privileges for whole categories of works. The unlimited renewal of these privileges tended to transform them into a permanent ownership of the work. In 1502, Andrea Torresani asked for a privilege for all the works of Duns Scotus, Aquinas, Origen, Savonarola and other authors, and he emphasized that he wished to obtain the privilege "despite the concessions" (non obstante concessione) which had already been claimed on these authors by other publishers.[2] Sometimes, even the magistrates themselves did not know whether a book had been given a privilege before, and whether it was still in effect, and they would grant a new concession without taking into account previous privilege holders. This is why they often added to the new privileges the clause "provided that there is no prior concession for other similar books" (dummodo aliis pro simillibus libris prius concessum non fuerit) or "on condition that this same [privilege] has not previously been granted to anyone else" (cum conditione, quod nulli antea fuerit concessum hoc idem).[3] In addition to an increasing number of claims and counter-claims, some petitioners sought to obtain privileges not just for immediate publication but to harvest as many monopolies as possible which could then be sold on. Many of these privileges were never realized. Blanket privileges could also be obtained which did not even specify the title or the author.[4]


These practices led to a trade struggle that undermined the economic viability of many printers and widened the gap between powerful printing firms and smaller establishments. Those who could not secure extensive monopolies either went bankrupt or resorted to illegal reprints - what the monopolists termed 'piracy'. In the absence of regulations, this unfair competition on the one hand and the indiscriminate granting of privileges on the other further paralyzed the Venetian printing trade. By the early sixteenth century so many printing privileges had been issued that the whole privilege system became cumbersome and inefficient. It became evident that new methods of procedure had to be devised, since private bills or privileges could no longer cope with the situation. The time had come for some general regulation which would deal with printing privileges as a whole.


On 1 August 1517, in response to the economic pressures, the Senate passed a law which established the principle of the public domain for all already printed books. It revoked all existing privileges and set out new rules which made it harder to obtain new privileges in future. In the preamble of this decree, the senators lamented that the number of privileges had increased to such an extent that it impeded the development of the trade by forcing many printers to leave the city. Therefore, it was declared that all printers were now free to print the works cited in privileges and that future privileges were to be granted only for "new books and works." The decree further ruled that henceforth only the Senate itself would retain the authority to grant privileges, which now required a two-thirds majority.[5] Until 1517, a number of governmental bodies could grant the printing privilege - the Ducal Councillors, the Senate or the Council of Ten. From this year onward, the Venetian Senate assumed all power to grant privileges upon a two-thirds majority vote. The only works eligible for a privilege were those that had never before been printed. The Decree of 1517 was the city's first act of public legislation aimed at regulating the printing trade. It was Venice's first anti-monopoly law and the first attempt to standardize the process of applying for privileges. From the economic point of view, therefore, the emerging system of privileges served as a primitive legal mechanism for the construction and maintenance of property and the-reintroduction of scarcity into 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 creation of legal monopolies. It was a system that developed spontaneously under the economic pressures which publishers and printers were experiencing rather than under government legislation. Although the Senate continued to issue clarifications, modifications and reinforcements of the printing legislation throughout the sixteenth century, no major changes in the license and privilege system occurred until 1603, when the Venetian government undertook a general reform of printing (see i_1603).


4. Expansion of the scope of protection beyond the sphere of verbatim reproduction (1517-1537)

Although it had been designed to put an end to the abuse of privileges, the Decree of 1517 proved ineffective as printers quickly learned how to evade the new regulation. A work already published could be abridged, lengthened, or refurbished (corrected) and reclaimed as new. In a petition of 1 March 1533, for example, the editor Marcangelo Accursio emphasized that he had corrected his edition of Ammianus Marcellinus's history of the Roman Empire in "five thousand places" and refurbished the work with several new additions.[6] In 1538, a librarian Vettor di Ravania applied to the Venetian Senate for the privilege "to print the fragments of Aldo [Aldus Manutius]"[7] It was easy to make a few corrections, changes and additions and then pass the work off as new. Thus, while powerful printing establishments continued to accumulate privileges, others resorted to evasive tactics of making minor alterations and additions and claiming that the work was 'new'. In order to cut down on this practice, two legislative amendments in 1534 and 1537 limited the duration of the privileges to ten years and imposed stricter rules for the renewal of existing privileges. The amendment of 1537 introduced controls over prices and quality, reiterating that only works which had not been previously published as a whole qualified as new.[8] Thus from the earliest period of printing we can see the potential for the appearance of the kind of problem which to this day is pertinent for the question of copyright infringement: that is, whether the work is sufficiently original and new.


Deciding the question as to the originality and novelty of a work was especially complicated at a time when privileges were granted for translations, abridgments, editions of the ancient authors and classics or for the Latin grammars, law books, catechisms and almanacs, in other words, for the categories of works which underwent continuous improvements and in which no particular author was involved.[9] Moreover, as the printing of early incunabula editions was rarely an initiative of just one person, and it often involved corrections and editing of the already printed work, it was difficult to assess whether the author/editor brought anything new to the abridgment or edition. Only when the market became saturated with ancient classics did the question as to what constituted a sufficiently original and new text begin to gain greater weight.


The earliest printers and publishers chose texts which they thought to be in demand and which they therefore expected to sell in sufficient quantity to recover their investment: works of classical authors and commentaries on their writings which had already circulated in manuscripts, the parts of the Bible and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, textbooks, and law books. However, too many presses focused on the production of the same titles. The piracy and unwholesome competition among the printers further contributed to overproduction. Cicero's De officiis, for example, was printed seven times in Venice between 1465-1482; three times in Rome; five times in Milan; twice in Naples; and once in Brescia, Parma, and Turin respectively, not to mention numerous editions brought out in Paris, Cologne, and Mainz. By 1476 no less than seventeen editions, and by 1482 twenty-eight editions of the work had come on the market.[10]


The overproduction slowed down the book market and intensified competition between printers determined to obtain a privilege and print the work before their rivals did. Bernardo Rasmo complained in his application for a privilege in 1496 that certain traders, having heard about the preparation of a desirable text, tried to obtain proofs from which to set their types, beating the deadline of the original producer.[11] This race to print works also affected the quality of reprints. In the colophon of the Statius, printed in 1472, the editor excused himself for all the errors he might have committed in his work:

"Should you find any blots on this work... lay scorn aside; for Stephanus Corallus of Lyon, provoked by the ill will of certain envious folk who tried to print the same book finished it more quickly than asparagus is cooked."[12]

Another selling strategy was to defame earlier editions and claim that the present work was correct and new. In order to create a market for their wares, publishers began to advertise, usually on the title-pages, or through broadsheets and catalogues, the novelty and good quality of their editions while sharply criticizing those already available. In his supplication to the Venetian Collegio for a privilege to print all of Cicero's works, Lazaro de Soardi emphasized, for example, that the previous editions were full of mistakes: "up to now printed very incorrectly on poor paper and bad type", and reassured that his forthcoming edition would be printed "with many corrections and new things."[13]


The new privilege regime, introduced with the laws of 1517, 1534 and 1537 put pressure on printers to seek new publishable material and oriented the market towards 'new' and 'original' works. There was also pressure to define the privilege in narrower terms and decrease the (temporal) scope of protection to ten years in order to prevent the formation of monopolies. Simultaneously, the emerging system of privileges was under pressure to expand boundaries of protection beyond the sphere of verbatim reproduction in order to avoid evasions by mutilations, additions and compilations. Similarly, reproductions disguised in a different format or font could not be claimed as new. In his petition to the Venetian Senate (see i_1515), Ludovico Ariosto explicitly specified that his work Orlando Furioso, for which he was to be granted a privilege, could not be reproduced in the same size or made larger or smaller. Nor could it be copied by employing a different type. He emphasized that it was not permissible:

"to print or to put to print my work, by using any other font, neither in a grand folio size, nor in the smallest one, without the explicit license and concession of me, Ludovico Ariosto, the author of the aforementioned work."

Thus slowly, under the pressure of economic and political events, the emerging system of privileges increased its boundary of protection. However, this additional sphere of protection was very narrow. Under the sixteenth-century concept of public good and learning, the legal system allowed various derivative uses such as abridgments, translations and improvements. Such works, even if they drew heavily on the original were not considered identical to it and therefore new and original. Thus while mutilations, additions, extracts, compilations and reproductions in different size were not permissible, at the same time abridgments, translations and improvements were permissible and often encouraged.


Another area of protection that expanded in the earliest years of printing was the subject matter of the privilege. As printers were experimenting with new technologies, the subject matter of the privilege rapidly expanded from printing technologies, improvements in typeface and book format to specific texts, drawings, architectural designs, and music. Also, the emphasis shifted from ancient texts to contemporary books and author-centered works. For some time texts were chosen by printers primarily from among the multitude of earlier manuscripts. Later when the trade in ancient classics slowed down printers began to choose works of contemporary writes ranging from humanists to theologians, poets or musicians. The widening circle of readers was buying an increasing number of texts by contemporary authors, which were now mostly produced in smaller pocket-size format. As the role of living authors became correspondingly more important, there was also a growing tendency to advertise the names of the authors on the title pages rather than keep them hidden away in a dedicatory letter or at the end of a book, on some concluding verses or in a colophon, as was the case of the early editions in which the author or the editor remained often unidentified.[14] Finally, with the new focus on the novelty and originality of the work required by the legal regime, and the proliferation of illegal reprints, a much greater weight was given to the protection of the text of the book, rather than only its physical appearance, shifting attention from tangible to intangible aspects of the work and its protection.


The privilege of 1494 granted to Soardi was primarily concerned with the quality of material and the accuracy of presentation rather than its intellectual content. This was typical in this early period when privileges were often granted for printing technology, techniques of production, book layout, type of fonts, quality of paper - that is, material aspects of the book. Similarly, the privileges granted to the famous printer Aldus Manutius for his cursive type and pocket-size book format were granted on the basis of how a text looked, rather than what it said. This type of privilege was conceptually very close to one regulating the production of drawings and maps. However, Aldus's preoccupation with the textual correctness of his works signalled a growing concern not just with the material quality of the text but also its literary integrity.


Aldus was the first European printer to issue books in a new italic type and the reduced pocket-size octavo format. But he was also a prominent scholar and editor of learned works who paid particular attention to the intellectual value of his works. When his most successful titles appeared in cheap and hastily produced editions in Lyon, he issued a 'Warning' (see i_1502), in which he warned his customers against the Lyonnais copyists:

"It happens that in the city of Lyons my books appeared both full of errors and under my name, where they deceived unwary buyers both with the similarity of the letters and the format of the volume very similar to my own, so that they were tricked to believe that the books have been printed under my care in Venice."

Aldus also complained that all counterfeited editions were the forgeries of the poorest quality. "The lettering, upon closer inspection, betrays a certain Frenchiness", he complained. They were produced on foul paper, "with strange odour", and with many errors. He then listed various typographical errors by which his customers could distinguish forgeries from the originals. So what was Aldus mainly concerned with: the quality of workmanship, how the text looked? Or rather what it said? At which point was a distinction made between protection of types and protection of the products of those types?


The imitation of the format, type and ornament of imprints began to be perceived as condemnable and these were in fact protected much earlier against appropriation than the actual text itself. Consequently, a 'new' work implied an improved edition or different format rather than an autonomous original text. With the new focus on contemporary authors and a debate over the 'originality' and 'novelty' of printed works introduced by the laws of 1517-1537, however, the combination of economic forces and the legal regime had paved the way for the protection of less tangible aspects of the book.


5. Bibliography

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

Fulin, R., "Documenti per servire alla storia della tipografia veneziana", Archivio Veneto 23 (1882): 84-212

Hirsch, R., Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1967)

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

Richardson, B., Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: the editor and the vernacular text, 1470-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1994)

[1] Rinaldo Fulin, "Documenti per servire alla storia della tipografia veneziana", Archivio Veneto 23 (1882), pp. 84-212 (109), nr 18.

[2] Fulin, 150, nr 128.

[3] 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), 17. For examples see, Fulin, nr 31, 33, 124,153, 161, 162, 169.

[4] Fulin, "Documenti", nr 25, 114, 128, 145.

[5] Until 1517, the petitions went to the Collegio (occasionally to the Senate or Council of Ten). The document is recorded in ASV, Senato, Terra, reg. 20, fol. 58v-59r.

[6] ASV, Senato Terra, reg. 14, fol. 110, 1 March 1533.

[7] ST, Reg. 61, 15 Nov 1538

[8] There may also have been an unwritten convention that editions needed a minimum print run of 400 in order to obtain a privilege. Richard J. Agee, "The Venetian Privilege and Music-Printing in the Sixteenth Century", Early Music History 3 (1986): 1-42 (7); Brian Richardson, Print Culture in Renaissance Italy: the editor and the vernacular text, 1470-1600 (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), 45.

[9] For 596 books estimated to be published between 1469-1480 there were 130 classical texts, 76 Latin grammars and abridged editions of classics, 121 theological works, including 28 biblical and patristic, 38 doctrinal, 39 sermons and 23 liturgical, 100 law books and 71 scientific (including 13 aristotelian) and 95 vernacular editions of literature and poetry. Cf. Neri Pozza, "L'editoria Veneziana da Giovanni da Spira ad Aldo Manuzio", La stampa degli incunaboli nel Veneto, Saggi e note (Verona: tipografia Editoriale Aldo Manuzio", 1983), 9-35 (12).

[10] There were also numerous reprints of Sallust, Virgil, Lucan or other standard titles such as the Confessionale of Antoninus Florentinus, the De civitate dei of St. Augustine, the Biblia Latina, the Imitatio Christi, among many others. Rudolf Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 1967), 44.

[11] "Fra I marchadanti stampadori da libri sia introducta una pessima et damnosa corruptella, mediante la quale molti de loro per I tempi passadi, etiam per zornada, sono rimasti desfacti, per questo, che quanod qualcheuno de loro marchadanti se ha messo a far qualche opera con qualche exquisito modo, videlicet involupando i suo' danari in quella, et venendo a notitia a questli altri marchadanti; cum ogni astutia et arte cavano et zerchano di cavar da le mane da li lavoranti la monstra de tal opera principiata a stampare, et se metteno subito cum grandi numeri de torcholi et lavoranti a stampare quella medema, et quella compino avanti che ‘l marchadante inventor de la stampa de quella habbia stampado la sua, et, quella distribuendo, sono chausa che tal marchadante primo, che ha spexo ogni sua substantia in tal cossa, non havenod spazamento, remnagi del tuto disfacto et ruinato." Fulin, 121, nr 44, 9 March 1496.

[12] Cf. Hirsch, 46.

[13] "tute le opere de Tulio cum li soi comenti, cum molte correctioni et altre cosse nuove, le qual son giá stampate infino al presente incorrectissime, de cativa carta et pessima littera." Rinaldo Fulin, "Documenti per servire alla storia della tipografia veneziana", Archivio Veneto 23 (1882): 84-212, 390-405 ( 112), nr 126, 2 May 1494.

[14] For the evolution of the rights granted to authors see also i_1545.

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