This Study endeavors to reconstruct the Vatican’s precursor system of copyright, and the author’s place in it, inferred from examination of over five hundred privileges and petitions and related documents — almost all unpublished — in the Vatican Secret Archives.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.
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 suggest 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.
The Study proceeds as follows: first, a description of the sources consulted and methodology employed; second, an account of the system of Papal printing privileges derived from the petitions for and grants of printing monopolies; third, an examination of the justifications for Papal printing monopolies and the inferences appropriately drawn regarding the role of authors in the Papal privilege system.