Research Handbooks in Intellectual Property series
Edited by Isabella Alexander and H. Tomás Gómez-Arostegui
Chapter 12: Proto-property in literary and artistic works: Sixteenth century papal printing privileges
This Study endeavors to reconstruct the Vatican’s precursor system of copyright, and the author’s place in it, inferred from examination of over 500 privileges and petitions and related documents – almost all unpublished – in the Vatican Secret Archives. The typical account of the precopyright world of printing privileges, particularly in Venice, France and England, portrays a system primarily designed to promote investment in the material and labor of producing and disseminating books; protecting or rewarding authorship was at most an ancillary objective. As the former Register of Copyrights Barbara Ringer put it: ‘The author was the forgotten figure in th[e] drama [of the origins of copyright], which was played out during the 16th and 17th centuries in England, France and other Western European countries … .’ The sixteenth-century Papal privileges found in the Archives, however, prompt some rethinking of that story because the majority of these privileges were awarded to authors, and even where a printer received a privilege for a work of a living author, the petition increasingly asserted the author’s endorsement of the application. The predominance of authors might prompt the conclusion that the Papal privilege system more closely resembled modern copyright than printer-centered systems. That said, it would be inaccurate and anachronistic to claim that authorship supplied the basis for the grant of a Papal privilege. Nonetheless, a sufficient number of petitions and privileges invoke the author’s creativity that one may cautiously suggest that authorship afforded a ground for bestowing exclusive rights.
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