copyright-brandedWhen the printing press hit Europe, royalty and clergy panicked.
All of a sudden, they had lost the gatekeeper position of determining what culture and knowledge was available to the masses, and by extension, lost control of the political discourse of their time.
At the time, different regimes reacted differently to the threat. France reacted by banning book shops altogether and banning the use of the printing press under penalty of death. The ban was utterly ineffective. (Yes, you read that right: the penalty for unauthorized copying has been escalated as far as the death penalty, still without effect.)
On the other side of the British Channel, Mary I had inherited a Protestant England from her father, who had converted the entire country from Catholicism just in order to divorce her mother (and moved on to marry a half-dozen other women in sequence). Mary wasn’t very happy with the treatment of her mother and had been raised a Catholic; she saw it as her duty to convert England back to Catholicism, no matter the cost in blood.
She took the throne from her cousin in 1553 and started a crackdown on political dissidents that still to this day earns her the nickname “Bloody Mary”. In the time, there was no difference between political and religious dissent – it was a war of power, superficially over Catholicism or Protestantism. Over 280 dissenters were burned alive on Mary I’s orders as a warning to others.
In this environment, she sought a further means to suppress free speech and political dissent. Seeing how France’s death penalty against the printing press had failed miserably, she instead opted for an unholy alliance between capital and the crown. Mary I handed out a printing monopoly on May 4, 1557 to the London Company of Stationers. In return for a lucrative monopoly of printing everything in England, the company would agree to not print anything the Crown’s censors deemed politically insubordinate.
The scheme worked to suppress dissent and free thought, and censorship was successfully introduced. The monopoly was called copyright, the word from an internal registry with the London Company of Stationers. Thus, the unholy alliance of the copyright monopoly was forged in the blood of political dissent.