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History of Copyright, part 2: Bloody Mary

by Rick Falkvinge


On May 23, Mary was formally declared a bastard by the archbishop. Her mother, Catherine, who was a catholic and the Pope’s protege, had been thrown out of the family by her father Henry, who had turned protestant just to get rid of Catherine. This was an injustice Mary would attempt to correct all her life.

The King Henry VIII wanted a son to inherit the Throne of England for the Tudor dynasty, but his marriage was a disappointment. His wife, Catherine of Aragon, had only born him a daughter, Mary. Worse still, the Pope would not let him divorce Catherine in the hope of finding someone else to bear him a son.

Henry’s solution was quite drastic, effective and novel. He converted all of England into Protestantism, founding the Church of England, in order to deny the Pope any influence over his marriage. Henry then had his marriage with Catherine of Aragon declared void on May 23, 1533, after which he went on to marry several other women in sequence. He had a second daughter with his second wife, and finally a son with his third wife. Unlike the bastard child Mary, her younger half-siblings — Elizabeth and Edward — were protestants.

Edward succeeded Henry VIII on the throne in 1547, at the age of nine. He died before reaching adult age. Mary was next in the line of succession, despite having been declared a bastard. Thus, the outcast ascended to the Throne of England with a vengeance as Mary I in 1553.

She had not spoken to her father for years and years. Rather, hers was the mission to undo her father’s wrongdoings to the Faith, to England, and to her mother, and to turn England back into Catholicism. She persecuted protestants relentlessly, publicly executing several hundred, earning her the nickname Bloody Mary.

She shared the concern of the Catholic Church over the printing press. The public’s ability to quickly distribute information en masse was dangerous to her ambitions to restore Catholicism, in particular their ability to distribute heretic material. (Political material, in this day and age, was not distinguishable from religious material.) Seeing how France had failed miserably in banning the printing press, even under threat of hanging, she realized another solution was needed. One that involved the printing industry in a way that would benefit them as well.

She devised a monopoly where the London printing guild would get a complete monopoly on all printing in England, in exchange for her censors determining what was fit to print beforehand. It was a very lucrative monopoly for the guild, who would be working hard to maintain the monopoly and the favor of the Queen’s censors. This merger of corporate and governmental powers turned out to be effective in suppressing free speech and political-religious dissent.

The monopoly was awarded to the London Company of Stationers on May 4, 1557. It was called copyright.

It was widely successful as a censorship instrument. Working with the industry to suppress free speech worked, in contrast to the French attempt in the earlier 1500s to ban all printing by decree. The Stationers worked as a private censorship bureau, burning unlicensed books, impounding or destroying monopoly-infringing printing presses, and denying politically unsuitable material the light of day. Only in doubtful cases did they care to consult the Queen’s censors for advice on what was allowed and what was not. Mostly, it was quite apparent after a few initial consultations.

There was obviously a lust for reading, and the monopoly was very lucrative for the Stationers. As long as nothing politically destabilizing was in circulation, the common people were allowed their entertainment. It was a win-win for the repressive Queen and for the Stationers with a lucrative monopoly on their hands.

Mary I died just one year later, on November 17, 1558. She was succeeded by her protestant half-sister Elizabeth, who went on to become Elizabeth I and one of the highest-regarded regents of England ever. Mary’s attempts to restore Catholicism to England had failed. Her invention of copyright, however, survives to this day.

This article is under a Creative Commons Zero license ("public domain").