Commentary on:
The Danish Copyright Ordinance (1741)

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Commentary on The Danish Copyright Ordinance (1741)


Jesper Jakobsen

Division of Book History, University of Lund, SE


Please cite as:
Jakobsen, Jesper (2023) ‘Commentary on The Danish Copyright Ordinance (1741)', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, 


1. Full title

7 January 1741. Ordinance that no person shall publish, reprint, import reprinted, or sell any book or writing lawfully acquired by another.

(DA: 7. januar 1741. Forordning Anlangende at ingen maa oplægge, eftertrykke eller eftertrykt indføre, eller falholde nogen Bog eller Skrift, som en anden paa lovlig Maade sig haver forhvervet.)


2. Abstract

The ordinance provided the legal basis for the right to copy books in Denmark-Norway until 1814, and in Denmark it remained in force until 1857. It was not only the first general law of its kind in Scandinavia but also the first in Europe outside the British Isles. The commentary describes the background to the promulgation of the ordinance, with particular emphasis on the religious and market context from which it emerged. The commentary argues that the ordinance was enacted to protect a semi-state printing press from competition from private printers, and that the ordinance aimed to provide a stable and wide range of religious literature.


3. Background

The initiative for the 1741 ordinance came from the College of Missions (Missionskollegiet) in a petition to King Christian VI (1699-1746, in his reign from 1730 to 1746) dated 20 December 1740. The College of Missions complained that “the printers here in the city [Copenhagen] have time after time reprinted several books that have come to light under the supervision and publishing of the College of Missions and Vajsen House (Vajsenhuset).[1] The petition included a draft which, as we shall see, formed the core of the 1741 ordinance. In order to understand the motives behind the petition from the College of Missions and the resulting 1741 ordinance, it will be necessary to briefly outline the relationship between the College of Missions, Vajsen House and the Crown.


Both the College of Missions and Vajsen House were institutions based in Copenhagen and had close connections to the Crown. The College of Missions was a governing body, with responsibilities for supporting missionary activities abroad. Vajsen House was a combined residence and school for orphaned children. Under the supervision of the College of Missions, it was run by a board, several of whom were also members of the missionary college and had close links with the Crown. We get an impression of the close relations between the two institutions and the Crown if we look at the leading figures. The president of the College of Missions was Johan Ludvig Holstein (1694-1763), the chief secretary of the Danish Chancellery. Other members included professor of theology Markus Wøldike, and Erik Pontoppidan (1698-1764), one of King Christian VI’s two court preachers.[2] 


Clearly, the initiative for the 1741 ordinance stemmed from within the inner circles of the political and church authorities, and a fundamental motive behind the ordinance was to protect the business of Vajsen House printing house by preventing privately operating Copenhagen printers from reprinting its works.


4. Copenhagen printers

In 1741 there were 11 active printers in Copenhagen. The vast majority were run as private family-based businesses, but one of them—Gottmann Friedrich Kisel (1689-1765)—had special ties to the state and the Lutheran Church authorities. Kisel’s printshop started in 1715 as the official printer of the College of Missions, but it burned down in 1728 along with a large part of Copenhagen, and was subsequently moved to Vajsen House, where it continued from 1729. Vajsen House’s activities were partly funded by the predominantly religious texts printed by Kisel, which were sold at reasonable prices. The College of Missions continued to supervise Kisel’s publishing initiatives, which included censoring the books printed there. [3]


The aforementioned close connections to the political and ecclesiastical authorities meant that Kisel’s printshop was often provided with privileges to print the most important religious literature, e.g. Erik Pontoppidan’s standardized catechism explanation, Sandhed til Gudfrygtighed (see sc_1737). In other cases, too, the royal power and the central ecclesiastical administration tended to have central and sometimes controversial religious writings published at the Kisel printshop; for example, in 1739 the printer at the newly established printing house in Viborg was prohibited from printing a certain text by Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705), as it was deemed more appropriate for the text to be printed by Kisel, perhaps because the authorities relied more on Kisel than a printer in a far-off province.[4]


4. Rights and protection

The petition by the College of Missions is key for understanding the motives behind the 1741 ordinance. It opened with an outline of the alleged consequences of the widespread reprinting of books printed by Kisel. The petitioners stressed that Vajsen House’s finances “which have already fallen into degression, would be even more ruined”.[5] They then presented a draft for a set of regulations which, with few and insignificant differences, was reiterated in the 1741 ordinance.

The resulting ordinance prohibited both reprinting and importing copies printed abroad, as well as selling printed works to which someone else had acquired the rights. The regulation defined five criteria for obtaining the right to copy. This could be either by receiving the work as a gift, by donation, if you had purchased the work or were the first to translate it, or if you had improved the work and incurred expenses for doing so.

With the issuance of the ordinance, the state therefore guaranteed the right of printers, authors, and translators to print and sell the works they had copyrighted. The penalty for infringing the copyright of others was confiscation of the unauthorised editions, as well as a fine, the amount of which was not specified but left to the courts to determine. However, the possibility existed that infringement cases could be settled without necessarily ending in confiscation and fining, if an agreement could be reached between the infringing party and the holder of the right to copy, here defined as either the author of the text (“Authoris”) or the first publisher of the text.


6. Market ideals

Returning to the petition and reading it in parallel with the resulting regulation, we find a clear expression of market ideals, as the intention behind issuing the ordinance was to ensure a stable and varied supply of what were deemed essential and useful printed works. The petition concluded with an outline of the expected positive effects on the book market of an ordinance regulating these matters: it was expected “that printers, as well as publishers and booksellers, will be encouraged and thereby be encouraged to make themselves more diligent and endeavour to have more useful writings, which have hitherto been unknown among us, brought to print”.[6] In this respect, the ordinance reflects a general trend in royal book policy in the 1730s and 1740s, namely the endeavor to increase the supply of useful religious books and writings. A few years earlier, the same agenda had motivated the Crown to reorganize how religious works were to be censored, so that conservative-minded theologians would no longer be able to block the production of Danish-language Halle Pietist literature for Danish and Norwegian audiences.[7]


To ensure a stable selection and supply of printed texts, the 1741 ordinance included some exceptions to the general provisions. The official hymnals, Luther’s catechism and school primers were specifically excluded from the new provisions. These were regarded as so important that their distribution should not be obstructed. Also, protection of the right to copy for books in general lapsed when the rights holders died, and their heirs were not granted a special privilege to print and sell them. Protection of rights would also lapse if the given book was unavailable to the market. The right to copy would lapse if the original rights holder did not reprint the work “within one year, half a year or four years”, depending on how big and how expensive the work in question was. If a printer or publisher failed to fulfil this obligation, the protection of the right to copy ceased and anyone else could then freely reprint the same writing.


7. Perspectives: The first copyright act on the continent

Robert Darnton has characterised the Danish copyright act of 1741 as “the first on the Continent”,[8] surpassed only by the British Statute of Anne of 1710. Although there are no indications that the Statute of Anne had a direct influence on the 1741 ordinance, there are similarities between the motives behind issuing the Statute of Anne and the Dano-Norwegian regulation of 1741. Both were issued following complaints from printers that their works were being unlawfully reprinted; they therefore requested a legal intervention to stop this economically harmful practice. On the other hand, while the promulgation of the Statute of Anne was initiated by a private “consortium of influential stationers”[9], the initiative for the Dano-Norwegian 1741 ordinance came from a state-funded institution with the intention of protecting a state-run printing house from private actors. 

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two acts relates to the differences in enforcing them. English printers were organized in the guild known as The Stationers’ Company in London, which not only organized and regulated the printing industry, but also acted as a copyright authority, as all printed titles were listed in the Stationers’ Register together with the name of the printer who held the copyright.[10] In contrast, printers in 18th-century Denmark-Norway were forbidden from organizing themselves in guilds, and there was no official licensing register. 

Instead, from 1697, Dano-Norwegian printers were required to submit copies of each of their works to the Royal Library in Copenhagen, and from 1738 the Faculty of Theology kept a record of all religious/theological manuscripts that had been censored by the professors (see sc_). As a result, if the rights to a particular work were to be disputed in Denmark-Norway, the case would either end up in court or be resolved by petition to the King.[11]


8. References

Bjerring-Hansen, J., Holberg og bogen. Om Peder Paars, socialt forfaterksab og litteraturhistoriens empiriske grundlag, upubliceret ph.d.-afhandling, Københavns Universitet 2010


Blagden, Cyprian, The Stationers’ Company. A History, London: Ruskin House, 1960.


Darnton, R, Pirating & Publishing. The Book Trade in the Age of Enlightenment, New York: Oxford University Press 2021


Deazley, R., ‘Commentary on the Statute of Anne 1710', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, 2008


Frøland, A., Dansk Boghandels historie 1482 til 1945, København: Gyldendal 1974


Ilsøe, H., Bogtrykkerne i København ca. 1600-1810, København: Museum Tusculanums Forlag 1992


Ilsøe, H., ”Fra bytteobjekt til nationalobjekt. Pligtafleveringen 1697-1783”, Henrik Horstbøll & John T. Lauridsen, Den Trykte Kulturarv. Pligtafleveringen gennem 300 År, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanums Forlag, 1998,15-58 


Jakobsen, J. ”Omorganiseringen af den teologiske censur. Generalkirkeinspektionskollegiets censurvirksomhed 1737-1747”, Historisk Tidsskrift 111:1, 1-36


Jakobsen, J., ”Der Klagen über das verdorbene Christenthum – Om interessekonflikter og censurprocedure vedrørende oversættelsen af et teologisk skrift i 1739”, Fund og Forskning, 50, 2011, 259-278


Jakobsen, J., Uanstændige, utilladelige og unyttige skrifter. En undersøgelse af censuren i praksis 1746-1773, unpublished PhD dissertation, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 2017


Johns, Adrian, Piracy. The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009


Pedersen, J., ”Pietismens Tid 1699-1749”, i, H. Koch & B. Kornerup, Den Danske Kirkes Historie, bd. 5, København: Gyldendal, 1951


DNA, Danish National Archives (Rigsarkivet)


Danske Kancelli, Indlæg til Sjællandske Registre 1741 (D19-68)


Danske Kancelli, Sjællandske Registre 1741-1743 (D18S)

[1] ”bogtrykkerne her i Staden Tid efter anden have eftertrykt adskillige Bøger, som under Missions Collegii og Vaysenhusets foranstaltning og Forlag ere komne for Lyset”, Missionskollegiet to the King 20 Dec. 1740, DNA, Indlæg til Sjællandske Registre 1741. The relationship between the College of Missions and books printed by Vajsen House, together with the College of Missions’ petition, is briefly described in Jakobsen, Uanstændige, 60-62. See also, Bjerring-Hansen, Holberg og bogen, 105-125”

[3] Ilsøe, Bogtrykkerne i København, 98, 116-118; Pedersen, Pietismens tid, 52-61, 84-98. Frøland, Dansk boghandels historie, 72-77

[4] Jakobsen, ”Der Klagen über das verdorbene Christenthum”

[5] ”som derved allerede er komme i Decadenes, endnu meere maatte ruineres”: Missionskollegiet to the King 20 Dec. 1740, DNA, Indlæg til Sjællandske Registre 1741.

[6] ”at Bogtryckere, saavelsom Forleggere og Boghandlere bliver animerede og derved til selv at giøre sig meere Flid og U-mage for at faae fleere nyttige Skrifter, som hidtil har været ubekante iblant os, til Trycken befordrede”: Missionskollegiet to the King 20 Dec. 1740, DNA, Indlæg til Sjællandske Registre 1741.

[7] Jakobsen, Omorganiseringen af den teologiske censur.

[8] Darnton, Pirating & Publishing, 7.

[9] Deazley, “Commentary on the Statute of Anne”, (accessed 6 Sep. 2023)

[10] Blagden, The Stationers’ Company. Johns, Piracy, 17-56

[11] Ilsøe, ”Fra bytteobjekt til nationalobjekt”.

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