Today in 1486, the republic of Venice granted its first privilege to an author for a specific book (a history of Venice), the Decades rerum Venetarum by Marcus Antonius Coccius Sabellicus, securing protection against illegal replication. Sabellico’s privilege set the precedent for the custom of granting privileges not just to the printers but also directly to the authors.
The first known privilege to a printer was a monopoly granted almost twenty years earlier. Joanna Kostylo quotes Marino Sanudo in his Vite dei dogi: “On 18 September 1469, a German inventor master Johannes of Speyer began printing books in Venice, and received a privilege to publish the letters of Tullio [Cicero], and Pliny.”
Says Kostylo: “The Venetians may not have been the first to introduce printing into Italy but they were quick to recognise the importance of the new craft. Ever since the fourteenth century they had been granting monopoly rights to immigrants who brought with them new skills and techniques to the city…
The best-known explanation for the emergence of author’s rights is a technological one, viewing the need to protect literary production as a consequence of the invention of printing.In a manuscript culture, texts were treated as common property, and copying another man’s work was often considered more of a favour than an injury. Though printing with movable type had speeded up the process of copying books, its revolutionary impact in the first years of printing should not be overemphasised. Gutenberg’s contemporaries may have seen printing as no more than a faster and cheaper means of multiplying the texts which had already enjoyed success as manuscripts such as the Greek classics and the Bible. It is not so much printing as the existence of a market in books and ideas that introduced concepts of intellectual property. As the literary market increased in importance, authors, who might well be writing for a living and competing for recognition, began to stress the distinctiveness of their products, in other words their intellectual or literary originality.”
Copying without attribution, however, was not new. Likening his poems to freed slaves, the Roman poet Martial (died 103) called another poet, who represented Martial’s poems as his own, an abductor – plagiarius in Latin. Hence the term for literary theft — plagiarism. Which Ambrose Bierce (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911) defined as “A literary coincidence compounded of a discreditable priority and an honorable subsequence.”
Protection agaisnt abduction of your mental progeny is now available online. On July 1, 2008, electronic registration on the Copyright Office website was made available to the public.