The Stationers’ Register was a record book maintained by the Stationers' Company of London. The company is a trade guild given a royal charter in 1557 to regulate the various professions associated with the publishing industry, including printers, bookbinders, booksellers, and publishers in England. The Register itself allowed publishers to document their right to produce a particular printed work, and constituted an early form of copyright law. The Company's charter gave it the right to seize illicit editions and bar the publication of unlicensed books.
For the study of English literature of the later sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries—for the Elizabethan era, the Jacobean era, the Caroline era, and especially for English Renaissance theatre—the Stationers' Register is a crucial and essential resource: it provides factual information and hard data that is available nowhere else. Together with the records of the Master of the Revels (which relate to dramatic performance rather than publication), the Stationers' Register supplies many of the certain facts scholars possess on the works of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and all of their immediate predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.
By paying a fee of 4 to 6 pence, a bookseller could register his right to publish a given work. One example: the Stationers' Register reveals that on 26 November 1607, the stationers John Busby and Nathaniel Butter claimed the right to print "A booke called Master William Shakespeare his historye of Kinge Lear, as yt was played before the Kinges maiestie at Whitehall vppon Sainct Stephens night at Christmas Last, by his maiesties servantes playinge vsually at the Globe on the Banksyde." (They paid sixpence.)
Enforcement of regulations in this historical era was never as thorough as in the modern world; books were sometimes published without registration, and other irregularities also occurred. In some cases, the companies of actors appear to have registered plays through co-operative stationers, with the express purpose of forestalling the publication of a play when publication was not in their interest.
In 1710, the Copyright Act or Statute of Anne entered into force, superseding company provisions pertaining to the Register. The company continued to offer some form of registration of works until February 2000.
- Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 3, pp. 164-77.
- Halliday, Shakespeare Companion, pp. 265 and 474.
- Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, As You Like It, and Every Man in His Humour were registered, apparently for such a purpose ("to be stayed"), on 4 August 1600. Yet if this interpretation is correct, the strategy to forestall publication had limited success; the first two plays were published later in 1600, and the last in 1601. Only As You Like It remained out of print at the time. Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 359; Halliday, pp. 216, 326.
- Arber, Edward, ed. A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London 1554–1640 A.D. 5 Volumes, London, privately printed, 1875–94.
- Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
- Eyre, G. E. B., and G. R. Rivington, eds. A Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers from 1640–1708. 3 Volumes, London, privately printed, 1913–14.
- Greg, W. W., and E. Boswell, eds. Records of the Court of the Stationer's Company, 1576 to 1602. London, The Bibliographical Society, 1930.
- Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
- Jackson, William A., ed. Records of the Court of the Stationers' Company 1602 to 1640. London, The Bibliographical Society, 1957.
- The Stationers' and Newspaper Makers' Company Official site of the Stationers' Company in its current incarnation.